Growing up on Staten Island, filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio had often heard the urban legend of "Cropsey", a cautionary tale invented to keep kids out of the abandoned Willowbrook Mental Institution. The institution was home to children with mental retardation, however in the 1960s came under fire for having its patients subjected to questionable treatment and living conditions. Cropsey was supposedly an escaped patient who would come out late at night and snatch children off the streets. This documentary covers the events surrounding a man named Andre Rand, and how he came to represent the physical manifestation of Cropsey to many Staten Island kids in the early eighties.
Documentaries on real-life crimes always fascinate me. Whether it's because of my morbid curiosity of the cases, or the fact that I find cases like The Zodiac to be so interesting, it's kind of hard to describe. CROPSEY can be grouped into these documentaries that focus on real-life crimes, although this one isn't covering a case that has inspired so many movies and books. Rather, it takes on a BLAIR WITCH tone that cuts out the filmmakers lost in the woods, and presents a genuinely disturbing look at one man, whether guilty or not, is certainly disturbing.
Throughout the documentary, Brancaccio and Zeman follow an ongoing court case involving Andre Rand, a former Willowbrook employee who was arrested for allegedly being involved in the disappearance of several children around Staten Island, including 12-year-old Jennifer Schweiger, a girl with Down's syndrome who went missing and whose body was found in the woods near the abandoned Willowbrook. Rand was previously incarcerated for sexual misconduct with a 9-year-old girl, so immediately folks latched onto the guy as the one who kidnapped Jennifer and the other children. It didn't help matters that the guy looked to be short a few. The photo of a drooling Rand being lead out of court would be thought of as incredibly absurd if it weren't true. It's stuff like this that has you fixated on the documentary, as you're never really sure if Rand was the one who kidnapped Jennifer and the other children, with each detail of the case leaving you wanting to know more.
Brancaccio and Zeman also interview parents of the missing children, as well as people who knew Andre Rand. All of these interviews, as well as TV news clips and newspaper reports (all of which include details about Rand's incarceration and his trial) add up to some really unsettling feelings, not only from the case itself, but from Willowbrook, the media's typical sensationalizing, the other missing children and the seedy underside of Staten Island itself that was kept away from kids growing up on Staten Island like Brancaccio and Zeman. For an independent documentary, this is wonderful to see such dedication and a trove of information surrounding Rand and Willowbrook.
The documentary isn't without its faults. As mentioned above, Brancaccio and Zeman sometimes play up the tension and creep factor with the documentary's sparse piano score and somber narration at times that threatens to take you out of the experience. Compounding things is the fact that the documentary needed a bit of polish in the editing room (the frequent dramatic pauses of the narration throughout the feature are a painfully obvious example). Still, the duo present a compelling documentary that answers as many questions as it asks, which is probably more disturbing than any horror film.
Video: It's a screener disc, but the transfer looks quite good, despite some bad ringing and edge enhancement in spots.
Audio: Again, screener.
Seeing as this is a preview disc, it's not the whole package. That said, the disc does include a handful of teaser and theatrical trailers as well as a deleted scene. The retail version of the disc will include a commentary track by writer/director team Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman and more.
Compelling as it is unsettling, CROPSEY is a fascinating look not only at the darker side of your friendly little neighborhood, but also an examination of a crime that may never fully have closure. Brancaccio and Zeman showcase great skill in presenting information in their documentary, as well as maintaining the viewer's attention throughout. It's not perfect, but it can definitely be considered a great indie gem.