Cropsey (2009): United States – directed by Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman
Not rated by the MPAA – contains some language, disturbing content, discussions about violence
Cropsey is decidedly a documentary, and does not veer into the territory recently inhabited by The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity [review here]. It is all true, or at least the footage does not purport to be something it is not. This is refreshing, and provides for a much more effective and affecting film.
The subject matter is interesting; is there a smattering of truth in the urban legends a child might hear while growing up? Directors Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio, growing up on Staten Island, had heard stories of a sinister person who inhabited the grounds surrounding an abandoned mental institution. If kids entered the woods they might be targets of this killer named Cropsey.
At one point in the mid 1980’s this became a reality, when a young girl named Jennifer Schweiger disappeared. A massive effort was launched to find her or her body after police efforts proved fruitless. It was then revealed that there had been other children who had gone missing. Their cases just hadn’t been so publicized.
Jennifer’s body was eventually uncovered, buried in a shallow grave in the woods. A man soon came to the forefront of police investigations. Andre Rand had been a janitor at the mental institution, but when it closed he, like many of the prematurely released inmates, chose to camp and live on the hospital’s grounds. He was sinister and creepy, and refused to speak openly on his charges. He was guilty as sin in the eyes of the community.
Zeman and Brancacchio’s journey takes them through the history of the cases, including interviews with parents and police involved. An ongoing thread is their attempt to secure a video interview with Rand, still in jail. But his sanity is questionable, and the goose chases on which he leads them seem inconclusive. Indeed, Cropsey as a whole is rather inconclusive, but it was never about the crime itself.
Cropsey, like the best documentaries (such as Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. [review here]), keeps most of its cards hidden for a while. Occasionally a massive, movie-shattering plot point will drop, and the entire film turns a new direction. This technique ensures that the film never grows stale or becomes boring. There are some major themes that run through the entire picture, such as how the media can so easily turn the public’s mind against an accused person. More disturbingly, though, Zeman and Brancacchio explore how easily the community wants to believe that Rand is the bad guy.
There is a mob mentality that the film explores, the way in which entire groups of people want an answer and justice so badly that they are willing to pounce on the first reasonable suspect. This may cause the viewer to stop and ponder, particularly as Rand appears so perfectly guilty. But with an entire community crying for blood it becomes apparent why there were witch hunts a few centuries back. Perhaps humankind hasn’t progressed as far as we might like to believe.
There is also the subject of folklore, of urban legend, that the film so thoroughly examines. When a story like that of Cropsey appears, how much of it may be based in a grain of truth? And how much of it may be a result of the story’s audience, those willing to believe bits of it and pass it on? The way the stories grow and flourish is what makes urban legends such fascinating material.
The most sad and disturbing part of the film is its depiction of Staten Island. For decades it had been the dumping ground for New York, with landfills and dead bodies from the days of massively organized crime. Most depressing was its use as a deposit station for a large number of mentally unwell people. It seems almost exactly the way it was depicted in The Snake Pit [review here], a thought that is most certainly not encouraging. Worse still, when the institution closed they simply released many of the inmates. With no continuing care they ended up loitering around the grounds. Some evidence unearthed in the film suggests that a group of them may have used underground tunnels as a discrete railroad. Scenes filmed in these passageways are intensely creepy.
A good deal of the paranoia in the community came from fears in the 1980’s of a massive occult conspiracy alleging that satanists were abducting kids. Many in Staten Island were convinced that a group of devil worshipers were stealing children to use in their Satanic rites, a topic fiction films like House of the Devil [review here] touch upon. These charges were groundless, but the idea of the group-think that created such theories is frightening.
Cropsey manages to cover a variety of topics, and never pretends to definitively answer any of its questions. For this it should be applauded. The film is adequately crafted, very much in the style of an investigative report, an approach that is most appropriate. For fans of urban legends and the indefinite place from which horror movies spring, Cropsey is a obvious choice.