Studio: Breaking Glass Pictures
Director: Barbara Brancaccio, Joshua Zeman
Writer: Joshua Zeman
Producer: Zachary Mortensen, Barbara Brancaccio, Joshua Zeman
Stars: Joshua Zeman, Barbara Brancaccio, Andre Rand, Geraldo Rivera, Ralph Aquino, Bobby Jensen, Karen Schweiger, David Novarro
The urban legend of “Cropsey” frames the real-life crimes and trials of alleged Staten Island child killer Andre Rand.
Every neighborhood has a Cropsey. The name may originate in New York, but the concept of an all-encompassing boogeyman resides in everyone’s collective imagination and lingering fears. Hook-handed or blade-wielding, escaped mental patient or supernatural terror, Cropsey is the threat invented by parents to frighten children into coming home before dark, or to deter them from trespassing in off-limits areas. If the adults don’t do it first, then the kids create a Cropsey of their own as a way to test a friend’s mettle on a childish dare or to give each other new reasons to lie sleepless at night.
For the residents of Staten Island, Cropsey is as much fact as he is fiction. In the summer of 1987, Cropsey crept out of folklore and into reality when 12-year-old Jennifer Schweiger disappeared without a trace. Campfire tales about children snatched by a menacing man from the shadows materialized into newspaper headlines as the kidnappings continued and a frightened community looked frantically for a direction to point their fingers. Ultimately standing at the other end of those suspicions was Andre Rand, a wild-eyed drifter whose physical appearance and sordid origins solidified him as a real-life incarnation of Cropsey. Whether or not Rand really was the boogeyman made flesh is where the mystery grows much murkier.
Using the urban legend as a framing device, filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio link the derelict life of Andre Rand, the haunting history of the Willowbrook asylum, and the seemingly connected cold cases of vanished children with mental disabilities for their intriguing documentary “Cropsey.” With an abandoned mental hospital, a disturbed loner, kidnapped children, and concerned citizens on edge, “Cropsey” bears all the trappings of a traditional horror tale. Except this is a true crime thriller with a deeper theme of what takes place when myth melts into materiality.
Jennifer Schweiger was not the only child in the area whose life story ended on a question mark. For several years throughout the 1980’s, multiple Staten Island youths stopped returning home with seemingly alarming regularity. Meanwhile, looming large across the formerly shunted borough was the imposing specter of the Willowbrook State School. Despite a damning television report from Geraldo Rivera, it would take a decade for an end to come to the institution’s government-sanctioned abuse of the mentally ill. When that end finally came, seeds of new nightmares were planted that cast the decrepit building as a sinister source for Staten Island’s evil. And living at the epicenter was Andre Rand.
Once a Willowbrook orderly, a now homeless Rand made his makeshift residence on the former hospital grounds. An imaginary Cropsey already haunted the building. Now area residents had a tangible suspect/scapegoat who fit the description, too. Whether suspicions were justified or whether he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, Rand would find a new home in prison, and new warmth from the torches of townspeople ready to burn him based on perception alone.
The film clearly equates Andre Rand with Cropsey, otherwise an already nebulous connection to the folktale would be rendered meaningless completely. Where the film stops short, however, is in offering a definitive opinion regarding Rand’s innocence or guilt for the crimes popularly attributed to him.
Up for less debate is how eager the community was to convince themselves that Rand must be the culprit no matter what. A head wobbling as though mounted on a spring-coiled neck, eyes bulging from their sockets, and drool pouring from his lips while being escorted in handcuffs virtually shrieked the word “guilty!” Yet without a confession, without any bodies, and with nothing more than circumstantial suppositions to act upon, getting an arrest to stick, much less a criminal conviction, appeared unlikely.
Miraculously, sketchy memories became conveniently clearer. Jennifer’s body suddenly turned up a short distance from Rand’s campsite following his arrest, even though that same area had been scoured with a fine-tooth comb on previous searches. And just like Cropsey, the legend of Andre Rand grew with tall tales, nefarious rumors, and questionably-motivated accusations of necrophilia, possible accomplices, and child slavery. In an eerie echo of the infamous McMartin trial and a panicked precursor to the West Memphis Three, satanic ritual abuse was even alleged, with a possible connection to a Son of Sam-related added on top. In light of all this wild conjecture, how could Andre Rand and Cropsey not be one and the same?
Cursory research into the professional histories of co-directors Zeman and Brancaccio doesn’t indicate an investigative journalism background. “Cropsey” has a noncommittal viewpoint that suggests a play-it-safe style from documentarians still feeling their way around the format. Zeman and Brancaccio cover as many bases as possible, from interviewing eyewitnesses to tracking down Rand’s old acquaintances and family members. With that kitchen sink approach, the film cannot help but lose some gusto that would come from presenting a presumed position instead of pure arm’s length objectivity.
It is a double-edged sword to frame a documentary with nary a hint of bias. On one hand, the onus falls on the viewer to make up his/her own mind with a Joe Friday “just the facts” mentality. On the other, coming away from the film while making an uninformed shoulder shrug is a very likely reaction.
Maybe Rand was rightfully fingered for the crimes. Maybe he was unfairly railroaded. “Cropsey” doesn’t know, and perhaps it is not even fair to expect the movie to provide even an inkling of its own conclusion. Still, “Cropsey” is compelling as a story and as a film, and it is more than competently structured with the usual rack focus establishing shots and slow-motion zooms on sepia-toned photographs one would expect of a “Dateline”-esque non-fiction piece. It is just in how the viewer responds to the open-ended interpretation of events that determines how satisfying “Cropsey” comes across as a documentary.
Review Score: 75