Cropsey is a documentary film that examines the finely blurred lines between fact, fiction, and urban legend. Filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio hail from Staten Island, and remembered the tales that were passed about during their childhood about “Cropsey.”
Essentially, Cropsey was yet another manifestation of the boogeyman-the man who will get you if you go where you ought not be alone at night. However, the Staten Island community was understandably spooked when a 13 year old girl with Down Syndrome inexplicably disappeared. Suddenly, Cropsey appeared all too real. Eventually, there were four more disappearances in the area.
What really sets this movie apart is the foreboding presence of a massive decaying mental institution, where unspeakable negligence and atrocities befell the defenseless people committed to the facility. It is the perfect backdrop for a crime story.
Willowbrook Mental Institution housed thousands of patients (most of whom were mentally retarded), and an unannounced on-site report from the facility in 1972 (by an extremely young Geraldo Rivera) is horrifying to witness.
Patients wallowed in their own filth, often unclothed, rocking back and forth and wailing on the filthy, dimly lit floors. The facility had an unacceptable caregiver to patient ratio, and overwhelmed workers were just as traumatized by their surroundings as the patients. The footage is shocking, haunting, and nauseating. Though I saw the movie weeks ago, those images are burned in my brain.
It stands to reason that this was the ideal breeding ground for a real life Cropsey. When the facility was shuttered in 1987, many of the cast off patients continued to live on the grounds of the facility, camping and utilizing an underground system of tunnels.
Andre Rand worked at the facility for several years in the sixties, and one of the bodies was found near his campground on the grounds. Andre was taken into custody. He certainly looked the part of killer, drooling and looking mad in many of his photos.
Zeman and Brancaccio try to get to the bottom of the disappearances and illuminate the circumstances surrounding Andre Rand’s arrest.
Was he a scapegoat? Was he guilty? Was he the charismatic leader of the homeless underground surrounding the facility?
The filmmakers provide us with a multitude of interviews, archived footage, and written correspondence with the increasingly bizarre Rand. During their investigation, the two confront some rumors about the Staten Island area in general, and Rand himself.
Devil worship, necrophilia, pedophilia, and other unsavory topics are presented in an objective manner. The filmmakers never really show their hand when it comes to Rand and his guilt or innocence, they leave that up to the individual.
You’ll likely find yourself waffling throughout the movie as to whether this is the guy or not. There are moments when you are absolutely convinced of his guilt. Then, in the very next scene, you’ll be doubting your instincts.
Don’t be surprised if you are still stumped at the end of the movie. If you like things wrapped up in a tidy bow, you might find this open ended movie frustrating.
There are fascinating interviews about the history of Staten Island. The island is host to one of the largest landfills in the nation, and one interviewee posits that the island’s reputation as a dumping ground extended into the mental institution, where unwanted children were dumped like unwanted trash. It’s an interesting analogy, to be sure.
Cropsey isn’t quite as scary as I was hoping, but I would definitely call it creepy and thought provoking. It is a must see documentary for anyone who is interested in true crime stories.