A real-life multiple-murder tale that could have been called "A Guide to Recognizing Your Boogeyman."
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. Not content to tell a story of suburban murder and urban myth, helmers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio heap enough doubt on what people consider a long-closed case that auds will walk out of their theaters, get in their cars and check on their kids, not necessarily in that order.
Zeman and Brancaccio establish the name “Cropsey” as a generic term for the monster/demented nightmare figure that lives under children’s beds and is the stuff of campfire stories. In the abandoned Willowbrook State School for the mentally handicapped, in Staten Island, a former school worker named Andre Rand became the local Cropsey — accused of the kidnapping and murder of a 13-year-old with Down syndrome, Jennifer Schweiger, and suspected of perpetrating the disappearance of little Holly Ann Hughes.
There were other missing children, too. But there was never any physical evidence to link Rand to the crimes, and no bodies were ever found, except in the Schweiger case. So what Zeman and Brancaccio do throughout their interviews with detectives, families of the missing, and local activists — some of whom have made the case their life’s work — is to ask questions that make it obvious what a perfect scapegoat Rand would be if of course, he weren’t also guilty.
But is he? He’s certainly a bad guy out of central casting: “I’ve never seen a perp walk like that,” recalls TV broadcaster David Novarro as the shaven-headed, hulking, drooling, handcuffed Rand is seen being led out of a Staten Island police station after his initial arrest. That “Cropsey” is about an urban legend come to life is true enough. But so is the gnawing idea that we need, and create, Cropseys to assuage our primal fears and inability to explain the inexplicably criminal. Zeman and Brancaccio manage to make a thriller and a doctoral dissertation in one fell swoop.
Production values are adequate; much of what is assembled comes out of decades-old news footage — including Geraldo Rivera’s career-making expose on Willowbrook — and there are a couple of “Blair Witch Project”-style sequences in which the native Staten Islanders/filmmakers stumble around the old school grounds that troubled their childhood sleep. They make revisiting the locationseem quite courageous indeed.