Forget all of those other found footage chillers and faux true-life horror movies, the increasingly feeble spawn of the Blair Witch. This 2009 film concerns a boogeyman who haunts Staten Island, and has been the subject of urban legend and campfire tales. What makes his story so compelling and frightening is that Cropsey is an actual documentary, the archival footage is genuine, and the killer who now bears the nickname really exists.
He may even remain at large.
"Cropsey" is a name given to a boogeyman or a crazed killer in parts of New York, including Staten Island. A real-life Cropsey stalked some children in the area, and his crimes were tentatively traced to a disturbed man who once worked at a long-closed, nightmarish mental institution, and apparently took to camping in the woods near its ruins.
Willowbrook State School, long perceived as a dumping ground for the developmentally challenged and mentally disturbed, operated from 1947 to 1987. It frequently came under attack for abuse, questionable medical practices, and contagious outbreaks. In the 1960s, Donna J. Stone, an advocate for the developmentally challenged, took a job there and reported her observations to the press. Geraldo Rivera ran an expose in 1972. On that occasion, he actually found something behind the locked door. Footage from his report appears in the documentary, and it is appalling.
Andre Rand worked as a custodian for Willowbrook in the 1970s. Between 1972 and 1988, four children and one young adult disappeared from Staten Island under similar circumstances. The bodies of two have been recovered; the others were never seen again. Rand emerged as the key suspect. By the time authorities had enough evidence to arrest him, he was living in the woods near the now-closed State School. He was ultimately convicted of the kidnapping of two of the missing children, but not of murder. Some dispute the evidence presented. He will become eligible for parole in 2037, assuming he remains alive that long. Rand, a drooling lunatic in his arrest footage, inevitably became entangled with the Cropsey legend.
That legend has inspired films, while Willowbrook State Hospital appears to be the model for American Horror Story: Asylum. The manner in which urban legend, Hollywood exploitation, and actual crimes become entangled proves a fascinating and disturbing mix. The documentary also provides insight into how folklore develops and grows.
The sheer weirdness of the tale has unleashed people's imaginations, with rumors claiming that accused killer Rand lived with former patients in the ruins of Willowbrook, where they sacrified children to Satan in b movie rituals. The film provides a good assessment of the evidence. People have squatted or at least camped in the ruins, but there's no evidence anyone connected with Willowbrook, other than Rand, ever returned, and the Satanic rituals happened only in the fever dreams of evangelicals. However, less reliable sources online, at Youtube and elsewhere, present wild speculation as fact, and some people might wish this more sober documentary had devoted less time to the nonsense, even though the filmmakers ultimately dispel it. A documentary such as this one can veer a little into Gothic goofiness, but the filmmakers needed to rein it in a bit. The facts are creepy enough.
Cropsey takes some interesting risks, including a late-night foray into the Willowbrook ruins where, perhaps predictably, they run into some thrill-seeking youth. It all feels a bit contrived, but the exploration helps evoke the horror-movie atmosphere that crept onto Staten Island during the time the story played out. Cropsey also benefits from archival footage and an army of witnesses. Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman have crafted a documentary worth seeing, but it meanders-- in places—just a little too crazily.
As regards the missing and murdered children, we may never know the full truth.
Directed by Barbara Brancaccio, Joshua Zeman
Written by Joshua Zeman
Appearing as themselves:
Andre Rand (convicted kidnapper, suspected serial killer)
Dr. Bill Ellis (Professor of Folklore, Penn State)
Dorothy D'Eletto (Archivist and Researcher)
Karen Schweiger (Jennifer Schweiger's Mother)
Ken Schweiger (Jennifer Schweiger's Father)
Donna Cutugno (Founder, Friends of Jennifer)
David Navarro (former newscaster)
Ralph Aquino (Retired Detective, NYPD)
Bobby Jensen (Retired Detective, NYPD)
Leonard D'Alessandro (Retired Detective, NYPD)
Frank Marchionne (Retired Detective, NYPD)
Ernie Anastos (reporter-archive footage)
Martha Hinton (witness)
Jim Callaghan (Former Editor, Staten Island Eagle)
Ed Armstrong (Holly Ann Hughes's Brother)
Sean Hughes (Holly Ann Hughes's Brother)
Peter Hughes (Holly Ann Hughes's Father)
Holly Cederholm (Holly Ann Hughes's Mother)
John O'Brien (Reporter, Staten Island Advance)
Duane Felton (Defense Attorney for Andre Rand)
Larry Simon (Defense Attorney for Andre Rand)
William L. Murphy (Staten Island District Attorney)
Trina Cutugno (Donna's Daughter)
Devin Cutugno (Donna's Son)
Kristine Gosling (Det. Sgt. Missing Persons Squad, Long Term Cases, NYPD)
Luis Rivera (Retired Canine Officer, NYPD)
Frank Saez (Ret. Det. Missing Persons Squad, Long Term Cases, NYPD)
Glenn Chapman (Reporter, Staten Island Advance)