Friday, October 02, 2009

DOCFEST 2009: CROPSEY—Peter Galvin's Review

"What if your urban legends are real?" One of the biggest mysteries in the annals of New York criminal history is now the subject of Cropsey (2009), a gripping documentary by Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio that debuted at this year's Tribeca film fest. At Variety, John Anderson assessed: "A real-life multiple-murder tale that could have been called A Guide to Recognizing Your Boogeyman, Cropsey has all the trappings of a true-crime TV special, but with an undercurrent of cultural exposition that is intelligent, profound and unsettling." At Slant, Nick Schager complained the filmmakers exploitatively reprinted the legend ad nauseum, turning "what might have been a portrait of the boogeyman myth's lingering societal role into merely a crude episode of 48 Hours." San Franciscans can decide for themselves when Cropsey screens at this year's edition of San Francisco's Docfest. Peter Galvin weighs in for The Evening Class.

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On Staten Island, the name Cropsey belongs to one of the oldest boogeymen on the East Coast. An infamous spook to pass around the campfire, his was the story of a madman who stole children in the night, and his legend persisted through generations, even making an appearance in the 1981 slasher film The Burning. But when children began disappearing in the early '80s near the Willowbrook State School, the notorious mental hospital that marked the beginning of Geraldo Rivera's blockbuster exposes in the early '70s, Staten Island came face to face with a real-life Cropsey.

Following a month-long hunt for a missing child in 1987, police produced one man as their suspect—Andre Rand. A former therapist at Willowbrook, Rand had remained in the area after its closure, camping in the woods surrounding the hospital. For a community that had grown terrified and angry, here was a face to put to the evil. In Cropsey, directors Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio—who grew up on Staten Island in the '80s—return to lead an investigation behind the events surrounding the five missing children and the man many called "The Pied Piper of Staten Island."

Zeman and Brancaccio uncovered a wealth of archived news reports and photographs, and—through their investigative research—introduce viewers to many key players in the famous case that resulted in Rand's conviction and 25-year sentence. The footage is beautifully reproduced and moves like a speeding bullet in its utter comprehensiveness. Speaking practically, it could be argued that the rise of crime television has spoiled American audiences a bit, and the aesthetic of Cropsey reminds of an extra-long episode of Cold Case Files, but through its evenhanded thoroughness it distinguishes itself.

As we unfold the facts of the case, the story begins to change shape and sprout new angles, resulting in more questions than answers. While the outraged families of Staten Island have chosen to vilify Rand, the evidence linking him to the crimes is less certain, and the directors have chosen to concentrate on unraveling the past rather than creating a monster. The pair themselves soon become characters in the film, Zeman narrating and both of them revisiting the many landmarks that darken Staten Island's history—most notably a genuinely unsettling, nighttime exploration of the abandoned hospital that had me wondering if it was an outtake from The Blair Witch Project.

Most of today's horror films offer escapism. When I watch a scary movie, I'm choosing to experience a little taste of fear in return for a cheap thrill, and then I go home and sleep safe and sound in my bed. In Cropsey, the horror doesn't fade away with the credits; the audience is offered the rare chance to confront a truth that often lies behind our cinematic boogeymen. No, Andre Rand is not the legendary Cropsey who caused so many shivers around the campfire, but his story is a reminder that the titular madman did likely stem from a real place and person in history.

Cross-published on
Ornery-Cosby and Twitch.

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