October 13, 2011 by abbyo
Every town has a boogeyman or a haunted house, some kind of cautionary urban legend that keeps curious kids from hanging around places they shouldn’t. Every once in a while, it turns out that some of these urban legends are based, at least partially, in truth. While the ghost of a psychotic killer may not actually haunt the abandoned house down the street, someone was actually murdered there, stuff like that. Because there’s enough of a crossover between the legend that’s grown and the thing that actually happened, it’s an intriguing idea that somewhere, underneath all that exaggerated fiction, there’s a strange-but-true fact, and it can be a creepy, fascinating exercise to find out where one begins to morph into the other.
That’s the idea that starts “Cropsey,” a documentary that wants to be about the truth behind a particular urban legend in Staten Island, but is in fact about a series of cold-case child disappearances and the criminal trial that accompanied them. It’s a doc with creepy imagery, but an unclear purpose. As a result, “Cropsey” suffers from a lack of direction that bogs the movie down and makes it feel longer than its 90 minute-ish running time.
Filmmakers Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman were both raised in Staten Island, and grew up hearing different variations of the Cropsey legend. In some versions, he had a hook for a hand. In others, he wielded an axe. In all of them, he was an escaped mental patient from the abandoned Willowbrook Hospital who lived in the hospital’s tunnel system and kidnapped and killed small children. Brancaccio and Zeman eventually shrugged the stories off as urban legends as they got older, until several incidents of missing children in Staten Island showed them the danger was real. The man convicted for the kidnapping (but not murder) of two of these missing children was Andre Rand, a former orderly at Willowbrook who had established a campsite on the property. After a brief dalliance into the folkloric origins of the titular psycho killer, “Cropsey” abandons its initial premise, and instead follows the trial of Rand, the reaction of the community, and the experiences of his victims’ families as the trial commences.
It becomes increasingly clear over the course of the film that Brancaccio and Zeman desperately want to find something in this story—a conspiracy, satanic cults, anything—that just isn’t there. They exchange letters with Rand in prison and spend an inordinate amount of time looking at the letters, reading them out loud, showing them to friends and family, adding narration about what they think the messages might mean. During a “Blair Witch Project”-inspired sequence, the filmmakers wander through Willowbrook looking for evidence of dirty doings (at night, no less—what did they think they’d find in the dark?) but all they discover are some hobo droppings and a gaggle of teenagers exploring the place for kicks. It seems pretty obvious from the start that Rand is the killer, and that he simply wasn’t mentally well. All the attempts to explain Rand’s motives, and tie him to things like occult worship and human sacrifice just make the movie feel like a yawningly long version of “48 Hours.”
What’s more, there’s no evidence that Rand ties into Cropsey. The urban legend that’s supposed to serve as the catalyst for the movie we’re watching is nothing but a loose thematic connection. It makes the movie feel disjointed, and actually made me feel like the victim of false advertising. The concept of exploring the roots of an urban legend, and the coming together of fact and fiction is all but scrapped except for one teeny off-the-cuff narrative mention three-quarters of the way through the movie. It’s a huge disappointment, since it’s a good idea, and a genuine examination of that connection, if it indeed exists, would have made for a much more interesting movie.
However, in the movie’s favor, “Cropsey” does have a whole bunch of effective, creepy footage. First there’s the Willowbrook institution itself, a hollowed-out shell of a place that looks like a cross between the house from “Amityville Horror” and Danvers State Hospital from “Session 9.” The shots of the rotting building covered in graffiti, homeless campsites and subterranean tunnels is enough to give you the shivers by itself. To show the place in its historical context, the filmmakers accompany their footage of modern-day Willowbrook with clips from an expose on the place from the early 70s by Geraldo Rivera. The news piece shows mentally ill children sprawled out in dark rooms, naked and barely clothed, getting goopy spoonfuls of gluey gruel shoved down their throats. It’s disgusting, sad, and an even better example of real-life horror than the one Brancaccio and Zeman choose to present.
In the end, “Cropsey” is a movie that wants to be about a specific piece of a community’s history, but in the attempt to make that story interesting, gets caught up in the trappings of a lot of other more interesting ideas. It’s too bad that the film’s directors didn’t just ditch the original story in favor of the stories it alludes to and briefly follows, because those rabbit holes are the stories that are actually worth paying attention to from a dramatic standpoint. The tale of Andre Rand’s crimes is scary in theory, but it’s nothing compared to urban legend of Cropsey, which is entertaining and freaky, and the story of the place that inspired it, which is both heartbreaking and utterly terrifying.