PLOT: Filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio examine the horrifying disappearances, and likely murders, of five young girls in their hometown Staten Island. The culprit? For the people of the borough, a mythic madman known only as "Cropsey", who lives in an abandoned mental asylum and snatches children out of the night... But the truth, of course, is always more tragic than fiction.
REVIEW: The idea behind CROPSEY, or more accurately, the way it's being sold, is so much more enticing than the actual product. To watch the trailers and peek at the posters for the documentary, you'd think it combines elements of BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and "America's Most Wanted" into one nail-bitingly scary search for a real-life boogeyman. Of course, a movie should never be blamed for its marketing sway, but in the case of CROPSEY, it's so tempting. The preconceived notion that this is a spooky tale about a mysterious murderer who haunts the woods, and the filmmaking team determined to seek him out, is all so much more appealing than the rather matter-of-fact, basic approach that is taken.
That's not to say that the facts at hand aren't truly grotesque. The "real" Cropsey, who happens to be a homeless weirdo named Andre Rand (no spoiler there, the movie reveals this early on), is a dirty sociopath; and the hurt that he left behind is palpable in the archival footage of parents pleading for their children's return. But the film takes a relatively objective look at its subject matter, which is judicious when considering its a documentary, but also a bit of a let down. There's a lot of rage and horror that should bubble up when examining the case, and CROPSEY's point-of-view is clinical as opposed to passionate.
The folklore of "Cropsey" is something all the kids in Staten Island used to hear about, causing them to steer clear of the woods and the dilapidated Willowbrook asylum within. Cropsey has a hook for a hand, or carries an axe, depending on who you talk to. One of those legends that builds upon itself (think CANDYMAN), Cropsey's existence seemed very real when five unfortunate children, all of whom had a disability of some kind, began disappearing over the course of several years, leaving only one body behind and a plethora of unanswered questions their wake. It seemed like a campfire story come to life - a psycho slasher ripped straight out of a slasher pic. But that ghostly element of CROPSEY is dropped very early on, when the focus shifts to Rand, who almost immediately comes off as a guilty creep, despite his denials of the allegations. (He was only ever charged with one murder-kidnapping, the evidence never solid enough to convict him with the other crimes, leaving an open wound for most of the families involved.) From there, we get a conventional behind-the-scenes look at his trials and the grief of his victims' parents. Aesthetically, it feels like a "60 Minutes" featurette. (A theory that Rand was in league with some sort of homeless Satanic cult is drifted out there but doesn't leave an impression.)
Heartbreaking stuff, yes. I don't want to make it seem like the tale of CROPSEY is anything other than appallingly sad. The subject matter is indeed as chilling as anything found in a horror movie, and it contains one of the most disturbing sequences I've seen in years (ironically, an old Geraldo Rivera-produced exposé on the Willowbrook institution displaying the hideous conditions the patients have to live with). It's just that the material is so strong, it's disappointing a more compelling picture wasn't forged. Competent, it certainly is, but simply not the achievement it could have been.
(As a side note, check out the docs CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS and/or PARADISE LOST: THE CHILD MURDERS AT ROBIN HOOD HILLS for examples on how top-notch filmmaking can elevate already-persuasive source material.)