I cannot believe I have never written on here about "The Rosary Murders," book or movie. I have the nagging suspicion still that I have, so forgive me, readers, if I am repeating myself. And for those who wish to read the book or see the movie, then read no further, because key aspects of the story will be discussed.
I first read William X. Kienzle's novel, the year it was published, in 1979. That was a life changing year, for me. My mother died, and barely a month later, Etan Patz disappeared. Wow!
Kienzle, an ex-priest, who left to get married, became a writer. This was the first of a total of twenty Father Koessler (pronounced "Kessler") mysteries, and I have read them all. It is one of my favorite books, and remains so. In some ways, it works better in print than it does on film. I had not seen the film in years; it was not commercially successful, and is, as yet, unavailable on DVD. You can see it on You Tube. It has a fine cast, headed by Donald Sutherland, Belinda Bauer, Charles Durning, Josef Sommer, and, in a chilling and moving performance, character actor James Murtaugh. And there is some minor work by actors in pivotal scenes that stand out from the otherwise plodding and predictable pace of the story. Every time there is to be a killing, it is telegraphed to us, via ominous chanting and spiritual music. Koessler not only risks violating the killer's confidence in the confessional, the sacrament takes place during a Mass, and I know of no such thing in my years of being raised Catholic. The whole purpose of the confessional is confidentiality, so why during a Mass, when fellow parishioners can see who is lining up for sin telling????? I mean, come on! Second, Koessler risks being charged by the killer himself, for breaking and entering into the killer's own home. The charge would be justified, and, in so doing, the killer might very well have gotten away with the murders. But he does not press charges, and, knowing the story as I do, I understand why. He wants to end his own torment.
This film is now thirty years old--a good decade and a half before "Spotlight" explored Catholic investigatory issues. "The Rosary Murders" was ahead of its time, but were audiences, and Catholics, in general, ready for it? Are they, even now? Let's find out, as "The Rosary Murders" is explored.
What is its story? There are several going on, at once.
Between Ash Wednesday--which this year is this week; how timely am I darlings?--and Holy Week, a series of murders begins, against priests and nuns, by a serial killer, with an as yet unrevealed agenda. Before discovering what that is, a person the killer holds especially in blame shall be killed.
It is clever how the Ten Commandments is carefully worked into the killer's agenda, which matches up clues in the names of those being murdered. The killer is sending a message--against the commandments, against the Church--what????
This is also the story of Robert Javison, beautifully played by James Murtaugh. While not on screen much, his time there is impacting. One can almost construct his back story. A good Catholic, he tried, in good faith, to remain so. He married his wife, Edna, at the right time, their late 20's, and had a beautiful only child, named Katherine, who died at the age of 16, for which he blames the Catholic church. But this is his pathology. He cannot deal with himself being responsible. Though it is not explored, there has to be some abuse in Javison's background. Because, when his daughter reaches the nubile age of sixteen, while his wife sleeps, Javison begins abusing the child. This goes on for some time. Kathy even reaches out to her advisor at school, Sister Margaret Mary Of The Holy Martyrs. The inflexible nun, in a move that will cost her dearly, chastises the girl for impure thoughts, saying her father could never do something so unspeakable, calling her a liar. Kathy withdraws further, and, a month later, unable to go on, she hangs herself, one evening, in her room.
I had to wonder if the mother knew. It was a small house, and just the three of them, living there. She could have been a Catholic of her time, and looked the other way. But I don't think that was the case; once her daughter took her own life. Which was three years before the story now being told starts.
The mother had to know. And Javison's compulsivity caused him to lose all he loved. But he directs this anger outward. It becomes apparent he wants to kill himself, too, that he is still mourning and lusting after his daughter, and is deeply remorseful about it. So he sets the killings in motion, causing him to be apprehended, in what I came to realize, at this recent viewing, was suicide by cop.
However, others were effected by Katherine's death. Two key scenes reveal this.
The first, when Koessler sees the principal at the girl's school, St. Gene's, in Detroit,(the film was shot in and around Holy Redeemer Church, in South Detroit) and learns the nun does not know much more than he about the girl's death. She goes on to deliver a classic monologue I myself use, when needing to enhance my acting technique--
I remember Kathy Javison very well. What a difference.
I don't know what happened to her, over that last Summer.
She'd been a sweet girl, warm, affectionate; a good student.
But, when she returned to us, in the Fall--she was completely
changed. She was moody, troubled; her grades fell.
Have you any idea of the change?
You might ask Sister Margaret Mary, Of The
Holy Martyrs; she was Kathy's advisor that
Sister Margaret Mary--
--Of The Holy Martyrs.
Does she teach, here at the school?
Oh no. She left after that year....and hasn't kept
in touch with anyone here, after more than twenty
years of teaching. I'm sure she is still somewhere
in the Sisterhood.
Not at all. You know, often you hear about teenagers
getting into drugs and alcohol...and that's how these
tragedies occur. But Kathy wasn't into that. It was
something else, something else, entirely.
What tragedies do you mean, Sister?
Don't you know? Kathy Javison committed suicide!"
Quite powerful, when first viewed. But, things get more dicey, when Koessler questions Sister Margaret Mary, Of The Holy Martyrs. You see, Katherine's death, and her subsequent guilt over it, so unnerved her, she retreated into a cloistered nunnery, where she has taken a vow of silence, speaking not a word to anyone, save God.
This scene is quite pivotal, and shocking, in its own way. As Koessler questions her, the distraught nun answers with a series of written responses, culminating with her questioning him, "Why do you want to know?" Koessler gets testy, reminding her she bas been absolved of her vow for this one interview. She scrawls back to him twice, on a piece of paper, the word "INCEST." In another piercing monologue, she explains to the priest--
"SISTER MARGARET MARY
With her father! With...her...FATHER!
She came to me. I was the only one she
would come to, not for awhile, not for a
long time, but finally, she came to me.
She told me her father had been committing
incest with her. She wanted it to stop.
I called her a liar, and chastised her severely,
for having foul thoughts. I told her her father
could not do something, which was so
unspeakable. She wouldn't talk to me, after
that...for shame. A month later, she killed
herself...and I knew she was telling the truth."
Poor Sister Margaret Mary. To have to live with that guilt and regret. Of course, Javison gets to her. Obviously, Kathy's death had an effect on her, as well. As is subtly
raised here, and in tandem with some conflict between Koessler, and his superior, Father Nabors,
(gamely played by Charles Durning) the need for more forward thinking is needed within the Church, to prevent such incidents taking place. But there is more to come.
As Good Friday ends, and police protection loosens, there is a knock on the rectory door. Koessler hears Nabors answer, and sees a gentleman, who, Nabors says has lost his daughter. Koessler knows by sight--a sudden encounter in the home, and his voice, from the confessional-- this is Robert Javison. He knows that he is here to kill. Trying to stay in the same room with Nabors, Koessler listens as the man explains, with emphasis on the "f" word, that he was "fucking my daughter" in her room, while his wife slept. Nabors can barely stand to hear this, asking only if he saw a priest. Javison replies he did, but the priest turns out to have been Nabors himself, whose platitudes really offered no help for himself or his daughter. As Javison reaches for his gun to shoot Nabors, he is shot first--hence, suicide by cop.
The film closes, with Koessler reading the suicide note Kathy wrote to her father, which the now dead parent always carried with him. The voiceover is by Janet M. Smith. It ends, "Forgive me, Father, as I now forgive you."
This is all very sad and disturbing. So many lives ruined by one man's pathological lust. And something Javison says disturbs me. When Koessler pleads with him not to do this, for Kathy's soul, he replies, "Her soul is in Hell!"
Is it? Is it, really? Here is where this otherwise flawed film and story (What are the odds of finding, within a diocese, a group of clerics and nuns, whose names are so in tandem with the Ten Commandments????) makes one think. Is Kathy's soul in Hell? I believe not! First, her suicide was driven by what her father was doing to her--and that is not her fault! Yes, she could have made better choices, but at sixteen, she felt cornered. She was young, unaware, and too trusting of a world she had been taught to trust that turned on her.
And, this film made me think of the other Kathy Javisons out there. The suicides I have known--two, to be exact--or Tyler Clementi, and the recently deceased Daniel Fitzpatrick, last summer, who attended Holy Angels Academy in my neighborhood. Like Kathy, he could not stand his abuse--in this case physical and psychological taunting by his peers--and also felt he had no other recourse. He was just 13. Is his soul in Hell? NO!!!!!!!!!!!
I don't think "The Rosary Murders" tries to blame any one, or any particular dogma. It does make a plea for more non-linear interpretation, which is always welcome, but which, I am not sure, even now, in light of Daniel, if so-called Catholics are ready for. I wonder what Sister Camille would think of all this? Or if she has read the book, or seen the film?
I think this film should be seen, as the ideas it throws out still merit our consideration.
Who could imagine a "serial killer story" could have such conviction?