(2009) directors Barbara Brancaccio, Joshua Zeman
“Cropsey”, according to the documentary Cropsey, is an urban legend in the Hudson Valley part of New York state, the name of a serial killer boogeyman, told at summer camps, passed as lore among children, a localized figure of fear. And for filmmakers Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman, their own exploration of this legend in their home of Staten Island, leads to a reality not altogether too far removed from that legend. A real serial killer/child abductor was active in Staten Island during the time of the directors’ childhoods, the early 1970’s through the late 1980’s in which a number of children disappeared.
The real “Cropsey” isn’t Cropsey, but is presumed to be a local man, Andre Rand, who looks very much the part, straight out of central casting, if you will, and he is tried and imprisoned for the kidanpping though not the murder of the only child whose body was actually found. But the evidence was never very strong and so the question remains, is he really the one who abducted these children? He’s as likely a suspect as they can find and they manage to find him guilty despite no hard evidence.
What’s most fascinating in this film is the portrait of Staten Island that emerges. For a non-native New Yorker, it’s not a place that I’ve ever been (though I’ve heard it’s cool to ride the Staten Island ferry). The picture that is painted here is of a very rural place, very different from the other boroughs of New York City, a place that had been geographically isolated until the 1960’s when a bridge was finally built to connect it to the rest of the city. It was home to New York’s garbage dump, an immense and scandalized mental institution, and a tuberculosis hospital as well. The dumping ground, as the filmmakers put it, for New York’s sick, insane, and garbage, and eventually a dumping ground for bodies too.
It’s not just that nature that comes across, though the scope of the hospital, its huge size and massive network of tunnels and the detrius of the now abandoned structures in the woods are clear. It’s quite a strange and unique place and the people are strange and unique too. The hospital was shut down some time after a Geraldo Rivera expose literally exposed the horror of the poor treatment of the inmates of the hospital, haunting images of children in various states of undress lolling about in their filth are spectres of a real horror. But Rand’s connection to the hospital (he had worked there and lived on the grounds in the woods after it closed) is part of the core of the strangeness of this world. Were there really satanists living in the abandoned hospital? There was a satanic church that was founded on the island and there are other local weirdos still strutting their stuff in contemporary footage.
The film’s weakness is in the personalization of the story. The filmmakers embed themselves in the narrative, appearing on camera, not just in voiceover as they explain facts, give perspective, and add their hefty two bits. It’s not because it is personal, but it adds a little too much commentary (rather than letting the story or the facts or the interviewees) stand on their own. And it makes it feel a little too DIY as well.
The idea of the blending of urban myth and a real crime is interesting. And it’s also interesting how mixed facts are with supposition and exaggeration even among the police officers and passionate citizenry. Some people interviewed throw out necrophilia, human sacrifice, and a Charles Manson-like cult into the procedings, when in reality there were some poorly investigated crimes in which no very valid evidence was brought to light. The case against Rand is almost entirely circumstantial, though compelling. And there are truly myths being made in the retelling of the tales.
I don’t know really that urban myths have as much to do with reality. But in this case, here too is a strong circumstantial case: are the campfire stories of Cropsey really not just tall tales? Or is the reality, that a man abducted and killed mentally deficient children without getting caught right in the midst of this small odd piece of Armericana far more frightening? Or that a man who could actually be innocent is imprisoned for the crimes simply because the public wants a perpetrator caught (and he fits the bill)?
There is a lot going on here that is interesting. I wish the film was just a little better than it is, but it’s still well worth checking out.
That said, I do want to mention that I saw this film On Demand because it’s been released on On Demand even before it plays here in San Francisco. I’d started this year to utilize On Demand and was getting to liking it, but then since Hot Tub Time Machine (2010), I noticed that the On Demand films are no longer letterboxed, rather full screen, which crops out a lot of the picture. I fucking hate watching films that have been cut like that. I suffered through it with Hot Tub Time Machine but decided against watching anything with a meaningful visual aesthetic on On Demand because I can’t see paying $5-10 dollars to watch a film with no DVD extras and see just a portion of the image. I thought with Cropsey being a documentary, I’d be willing to give it a go and see whether or not the film was shown letterboxed (there is not detail on this anywhere or choice). But even this film seemed diminished in watching it cropped like this. It’s a personal preference but I have to say that this may be the last film that I watch on On Demand if I don’t see them letterboxed again. Maybe I’ll finally get the Netflix streaming thing going.