US (dir. Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio)
Cast: Donna Cutugno, Karen Schweiger, David Novarro, Ralph Aquino
Synopsis: Staten Island filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio reveal how an urban legend conjured up to keep kids from exploring abandoned buildings became a horrifying reality when a mysterious drifter began abducting children in their tight-knit urban neighborhood. Growing up, Zeman and Brancaccio were deluged with terrifying tales of Cropsy, a murderous mental patient prone to snatching children off the streets and taking them to the derelict buildings that were once part of the Willowbrook Mental Institution. Some claimed Crospey had a hook for a hand; others claimed his weapon of choice was a large axe. In 1987, that legend crossed the boundary into reality when 13-year-old Jennifer Schweiger vanished without a trace. Her disappearance sent shockwaves of fear through the community, but it was only the first. Before long Crospey had a name: Andre Rand. When a photo of a handcuffed Rand was released in the press, the public didn’t need a conviction to know he was the man who had been preying on their children. In this film, Zeman and Brancaccio go back to the scene of the crimes to search for clues, and speak with the locals about how the case has haunted them for decades.
Review: Being a fan of both true crime and horror movies, I found “Cropsey” to be a wonderful meld of the two genres. On the one hand, it is a structured, well-researched documentary rife with interviews from a wide range of people both directly and indirectly involved with the case of the mysterious Staten Island child murders, while on the other hand it is a real life horror story documenting the bizarre case of chief suspect Andre Rand. If you are a fan of “Paradise Lost”, the documentary on the case against the “West Memphis Three”, this is certainly something you would find worth watching. However unfortunately (or fortunately, depending upon your point of view) “Cropsey” doesn’t exactly go to great lengths to overwhelm you with evidence that could potentially clear Rand. In fact by the end of the film I was neither convinced that Rand was the killer, nor did I feel as though Rand was set up as an easy scapegoat by the Staten Island community.
While the documentary is successful and building a dark tone that rivals that of even some of the better, fictional, horror films of the year, it fails with the excessive amount of conspiracy theories and wild, go-nowhere stories. Not enough time is spent proving a point, leaving you to wonder what the goal of this documentary is. You may argue that it has no real goal other than to document the development of the Cropsey legend and provide some sort of closure to the Staten Island child killings. However no evidence is ever conclusive enough to prove Andre Rand, a former Willowbrook employee, was responsible for the child killings, or even just the abductions themselves. By the end of the film you are neither convinced Rand was involved, nor do the filmmakers make any great leaps or bounds to prove that he was fingered as the wrong guy. The unfortunate lack of an interview with Rand, due to his constant manipulative mind games with the filmmakers definitely, hurts the film somewhat. So instead of hearing the truth from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, the documentary is padded with more far-fetched theories and anecdotes from sketchy “witnesses”.
Due to Rand’s lack of cooperation, the “whole truth” cannot ever really be revealed, therefore this documentary ends up being just a very detailed account of the child disappearances/killings on Staten Island instead of a film out to find the “real” killer. That’s not to say the film ends up being boring. In fact the documentary is anything but boring; the pacing is excellent, the tone is fitting, the score is adequately dark and there is even a fair share of actual horror in the segment in which Geraldo Rivera’s investigative piece on Willowbrook, in which mentally handicapped children are seen wandering the institution nude and often covered in excrement, is shown. The filmmakers are wonderful at asking all the right questions, however they may not provide, or even pretend to know the answers. In interviewing any persons involved in the case, they let the viewers opinions be formed by these eyewitness accounts and stories. However, it is unfortunate that many of these self-professed “eyewitnesses” lack credibility. With so many varying, and often conflicting accounts of the kidnappings, the viewer is left without any clear sense of what exactly transpired ion Staten Island when these children vanished. In fact, one eyewitness interview, in which she claims having seen Rand wearing a mask and abducting the children is laughable when you consider the fact that this person is finger-pointing a specific person that she claims to have been able to identify even though he was… uhh… wearing a mask that concealed his identity…? It is in these kinds of interviews and anecdotes that you will be left with some seriously raised eyebrows. It doesn’t help their credibility much either when the filmmakers spend time exploring the ridiculous Satanic cult angle, pointing out “evidence” of supposed black masses being performed on the abandoned Willowbrook grounds. I mean really?
In the end, what this documentary boils down to is a chronicle of how an American boogeyman was born out of the minds of a public so willing to believe Staten Island’s most likely suspect was the killer. Of course it didn’t exactly help Rand out to have that drooling picture of him released after his arrest, but again that doesn’t cement him as a killer.
By the end of this film you will realize nothing does conclusively prove Rand is guilty, or even innocent for that matter. There is no big revelation at the end of the film to wrap everything up, and neither is there even an attempt to plant seeds of doubt in the minds of the viewers by providing some sort of concrete proof Rand could not have been involved, despite his convenient resemblance to a real-life boogeyman, best known as, Cropsey. That’s not to say, however, that the documentary is not a great watch (which it is) and the enthusiasm and dedicationof the filmmakers is more than evident.