Cropsey (2009) D: Barbara Brancaccio & Joshua Zeman

Cropsey (2009) D: Barbara Brancaccio & Joshua Zeman

Cropsey

Growing up, everybody had urban legends to tell. Sitting around at school camps in the dark or out in the bush with friends, someone would always tell a frightening tale or two of a serial killer, a phantom or an evil witch to thrill in the fear of it. Where I lived, tales of the Blue Lady, a ghostly woman who glows blue, were widespread and persist to this day. In New York and much of the US, it is Cropsey.

Cropsey, by turns, is a farmer or a bullied camp teen, or a groundskeeper who has died by accident / suicide / fire and returned to wreak bloody revenge. (something The Simpsons parodied in Treehouse of Horror VI). Sometimes he has a hook for a hand, sometimes he carries an axe, but always he is terrifying and a killer of children. In the already creepy borough of Staten Island, New York, (creepy for the vast expanse of wilderness virtually within earshot of Manhattan), their variation of the Cropsey myth tells of a patient escaped from the abandoned and dilapidated Willowbrook Mental Hospital. Their myth could well be true.

Barbara Branaccio and Joshua Zeman have done their research to show viewers how a man named Andre Rand was convicted in 1987 of murdering 13 year old  Downs Syndrome girl Jennifer Schweiger and subsequently investigated for the disappearance of several other children. Rand was an orderly at Willowbrook for two years and, when it shut down, is said to have lived in makeshift shelters around its overgrown grounds. Deep beneath Willowbrook, a system of tunnels we’re told is also home to countless vagrants and the odd Satanic cult.

It is the spectre of Willowbrook that makes this film as unsettling as it is. Particularly frightening is television footage of a young  Geraldo Rivera inside the then fully operational facility exposing patients in a state of naked filth and heart-wrenching agony – lobotomy scars, shaved heads and wailing included. When the directors travel into the tunnel system, their fear at entering is a welcome bit of comic relief. Comical also is the seemingly genuine belief, by detectives who worked the case, that to sacrifice them to a Satanic cult was the reason Rand abducted children.

What is left unanswered through the film, where the directors manage to correspond by mail with Rand as they attempt to interview him in person, is the beyond-a-doubt establishment of guilt. Cropsey seems to surmise that very little evidence was available to convict Rand and that a press photo of him drooling, obviously insane, being led in handcuffs was enough to sway the jury. While it seems that innocent or not, the rest of us are better off with Andre Rand in jail, it doesn’t appear certain that Jennifer Schweiger received true justice and several other disappearances have gone unsolved. The possibility is also raised that Rand had an accomplice who, if true, is still at large.

Watching Cropsey at the cinema is a macabre thrill in a darkened space , much like the telling of urban myths around a campfire. It will also outrage viewers by the tragedy which befell Jennifer’s family and those of the others still missing. This is on-the-ground, probing documentary film-making that ultimately falls short of a finished tale.

An ominous walk through dark places in Staten Island history. 4 stars

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~ by mfnm on July 24, 2010.

One Response to “Cropsey (2009) D: Barbara Brancaccio & Joshua Zeman”

  1. The one sore point for me of this film is the actual Rand case itself. For those unfamiliar with Rand, it would have been nice to know a little more about the original case and why this former mental patient was found guilty in the first place on what seemed to be mostly circumstantial evidence. For that, I could’nt help but keep the thought in the back of my mind the entire film that possibly Rand was innocent. Something the directors failed to explore. The second case also left me, not celebrating the legal system, but questioning why the eye witness in the case was 6 years old at the time (and by her own admission could’nt remember a lot), whose testimony was that a man who’s face was covered kidnapped her friend, who’s body was still unrecovered. The directors pose more questions than they answer, and raise serious doubt about the credibility of the Rand case, while leaving the viewer with one last question lingering in their heads: If Rand isn’t the Staten Island boogieman than who is?

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