Cropsey Movie Review
Written by Steve Pattee
DVD released by Vicious Circle Films
Directed by Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman
Written by Joshua Zeman
2009, 84 minutes, Not Rated
DVD released on May 10th, 2011
It seems that every major populated area has an urban legend of some sort. Where I grew up it was the Goatman. Part man, part goat, if you ever spot this mythical beast, you are pretty much dead. Of course, my friends and I would talk about the Goatman in hushed tones, wondering how much of the stories we heard were actually true. Now, as an adult, I'm fairly confident that the Goatman is nothing more than an old wives tale told to children to keep them out of trouble because it shares a lot of similarities to the legendary Hook Man of lover’s lane. God, at least the jackasses that made up the Goatman could have least been original.
For filmmakers Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman, their boogieman was Cropsey, an ax-wielding (or knife-bearing or hook-having, depending who you ask) maniac who wanted nothing more than to slaughter children. Cropsey is the Staten Island equivalent of Southern Maryland's Goatman, but the difference is Cropsey has the advantage of having the infamous Willowbrook Mental Institution as his place of residence. And, oh yeah, he's based in truth.
Cropsey is an interesting documentary, to say the least. Starting out with a history of the legend of Cropsey, it slowly turns into something more disturbing as it puts a face and a name to the nightmare that keeps some kids from staying out late. When several children disappeared in the '80s, Andre Rand, the true subject of Cropsey, was the prime suspect. Former janitor at Willowbrook, drifter and insane, the only thing Rand didn't have was the windowless van (although in his defense, he did have a Volkswagen — Ted Bundy's car of choice). However, due to a lack of evidence (read: bodies), police couldn't do much with him.
Rand finally had his (first) day in court in 1987 when the body of Jennifer Schweiger, a 12-year-old girl who suffered from Down's syndrome, was found. Tried, convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life, he had another case brought up against him in 2002. This time it was for the disappearance of Holly Ann Hughes, who went missing in 1982.
Filmmakers Brancaccio and Zeman go all out with the telling of Rand's potential involvement in numerous missing cases in the Staten Island area. They hunt down witnesses, detectives, lawyers and people who helped in the search of the missing children two decades prior. They also dig up old news footage, including Geraldo Riveria's career-making piece on the Willowbrook Mental Institution. I have to hand it to them, they leave no stone unturned, to the point of even trying to talk to Rand's sister (who, sadly doesn't have much to say).
The problem, though, in an effort to put everything out there, a lot of the gold gets mixed up with a lot of the... garbage. For example, there is speculation that the missing children were abducted for the purpose of a satanic ritual. C'mon, really? When I hear that sort of talk, I'm automatically reminded of the McMartin case or the West Memphis Three. The term “satanic ritual” is hayseed talk for “let's have ourselves some vigilante justice”. There's also a psychic who refuses to talk on camera because she fears for her life, and I just had to roll my eyes. These interviewees, and some others like them, tend to bring down the documentary, as they take you out of the film. I understand what Brancaccio and Zeman were doing, putting everything out there and allowing the viewer to judge for themselves, but sometimes it's best to leave some things out, as it becomes a mockery of what you are attempting to do.
Another thing that somewhat hurts Cropsey is at one point the filmmakers get in touch with Cropsey via mail. He starts leading them on with the promise of an interview, but rest assured, that interview never happens. Some may consider me telling you that a spoiler, but I look at it as saving you from getting your hopes up, and I'm unapologetic for it. I wish someone had done it for me. It was incredibly frustrating to be led on with the hopes of actually seeing a sit down with Rand, only to be turned away, not unlike the filmmakers were. Perhaps the filmmakers alluded to the interview (even if unintentionally) because they wanted to show the manipulation that Rand was capable of, but I felt manipulated myself with the unspoken promise of something that was never delivered.
Now I know it looks like I didn't like Cropsey from the above rant, but that's not the case. I quite enjoyed it. Even though I don't agree with the “throw everything at the wall and we'll see what sticks” method that Brancaccio and Zeman went with, I admire how much effort the two put into tracking down as much information as they could. Also, this isn't an agenda piece (that I could tell). The two simply put out what they came up with and allow you to come to your own conclusions. This really works for Cropsey, because there are plenty of questions to Rand's guilt or innocence. The witnesses against him are questionable at best, and you can easily tell that there is a lynch mob mentality that permeates throughout the documentary.
Plus, for every insane interviewee, there are some believable people talked to in Cropsey. The police who worked on the case, Donna Cutugno, founder of Friends of Jennifer — a volunteer group that searches for missing children — and Frank Saez, former detective of the missing persons squad for New York. But the real place this documentary shines, hands down, is a creepy discovery the filmmakers uncover in some of the old news footage surrounding the case. It’s not new evidence or anything like that, but it’s a rather an unsettling moment that when shown to the two former detectives who worked on the case, they were surprised they never saw it.
According to IMDB, Cropsey is the directorial debut for both Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman. Even with its problems, the two have done a pretty fantastic job for their first feature. I really want to see where they go from here, as it's obvious they aren't afraid to work to dig up whatever information is out there, as well as put out something that is relatively unbiased (which is imperative in a documentary in the crime genre). They are more than capable of putting out an intriguing documentary, and if they can lose the “everything but the kitchen sink” push of information, they have the talent to put out something spectacular.