Written by: Joshua Zeman
Directed by: Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman
Reviewed by: Brett G.
The Truth is Terrifying.
The Cropsey legend has been told around campfires for generations. Though the specifics of the story may change, the overarching story remains the same: he’s a local madman (who may or may not have been severely burned) who preys on innocent children. He’s ostensibly the boogeyman writ large, a construct to keep kids on their best behavior, almost like a twisted version of Santa Claus. While this has become a universal tale, it can trace its historical roots back to the Hudson Valley area, where it took on various permutations. With Cropsey, documentary film-makers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio specifically set out to explore the Staten Island version of the legend from their own childhood, which featured the titular character as a man who lived deep in the woods of the island, always waiting to snatch up unsuspecting children who dared to venture into his domain.
As the two dig deeper into the legend, they discover the twisted reality behind the tale in the form of a rash of handicapped-child disappearances over the course of two decades. A tangled web unfolds to reveal the seedy history of Staten Island, particularly the Willowbrook State School, which especially became a house of horrors for one of its orderlies, Andre Rand. He becomes the face of the “boogeyman,” as he is eventually convicted of kidnapping and murdering at least one local child. He remains a suspect in hordes of other similar cases, and Zeman and Brancaccio attempt to find a reasoning behind this real-life Cropsey.
In true urban legend form, however, no simple reasoning is found. Instead, the documentary unravels to reveal several possibilities--maybe Rand is simply a mentally disturbed individual whose own childhood lead him to target and kill these handicapped children. Or maybe he way acting on behalf of one of the many Satanic cults rumored to operate on the island. It sounds outlandish, but it’s presented here as a very real and terrifying possibility. The film even manages to channel The Blair Witch Project during one of these sequences, where our two film-makers dare to enter a supposed-cult stomping ground in the middle of the woods at night. For a film that mostly plays out as a documentary, this is a surprisingly effective moment that reminds us what’s at the core here: the spooky stories everyone tells each other and the sliver of horrifying truths that lie behind them.
Cropsey is a story of layers; obviously, it’s all about demythologizing an old urban legend, but it’s also about digging up the dark secrets on Staten Island. These are some very real, visceral horrors; we’re presented with some archive footage (filmed as part of an exposé by a young Geraldo Rivera) that reveal the deplorable conditions at Willowbrook, where the handicapped patients were treated more like animals than people. Once the institution was shut down, it too became a sort of urban legend, sort of the island “haunted house” that all kids should avoid; again, the film shows that there’s a good reason for this reputation because some children went into these woods, never to re-emerge. The real, local boogeyman here is the aforementioned Rand, and the film paints a complex portrait of a man that’s largely unknown in the annuls of American psychopaths. If all of the accusations leveled at him are true, he’s certainly one of the most monstrous serial killers to have ever lived.
Some of the film plays out as a police procedural and court drama focused on Rand’s various trials; it’s interspersed nicely again with archive footage that shows the actual news reports and interviews when the stories broke. Despite the title’s boogeyman-focus, the film feels like an exposé for the five children who tragically disappeared and the broke families that were left behind looking for closure. It’s here that the film is at its most poignant because we’re forced to confront the reality behind the seemingly harmless campfire tales. Interestingly enough, the film makes us consider how everyone left in the wake of such tragedy (including the community at large) perhaps help to perpetuate the myth by needing to create a real boogeyman (in this case, Rand) as a scapegoat to deal with the inexplicable.
Ultimately, the film asks more questions than it answers, which is indicative of the subject matter that informs and frames the film: urban legends. Like those stories, we can only ever know half-truths at best, and this might be the most terrifying aspect of all. We’re forced to accept that we may never know just exactly what happened to all the children who disappeared on Staten Island; instead, we have to accept the possibilities and decide for ourselves. And really, if we talk ourselves into the most reasonable explanation, is it really any different than constructing a mythical tale in the first place? What if truth is even scarier than any sort of fiction we can concoct?
Cropsey is a compelling and fascinating look at all of these things; it’s also quite informative and riveting despite the grisly subject matter. The film had been available on Netflix for quite a while, but now it's coming home to DVD from Breaking Glass Pictures (via their Vicious Circle Films label) on May 10th. The disc will feature a pristine anamorphic transfer and a Dolby Digital stereo soundtrack. Breaking Glass's press release boasts 30 minutes of never-before-seen footage and exclusive press clips; the screener provided me only featured a handful of teasers, a trailer, and one deleted scene. Still, the feature film itself deserves a spot on any horror aficionado's shelf. Just about everyone’s heard a Cropsey story or two, but this one is perhaps the scariest variation of them all. Buy it!
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