Joshua Zeman & Barbara Brancaccio–2011–84 minutes
Both Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio grew up on Staten Island in the 1970s when the Cropsey urban legend was well known. Cropsey was an all-purpose name given to alleged violent maniacs and was used by children wanting to put a scare into each other or by adults wanting to keep their kids out of the woods. The Cropsey fable was a familiar one up and down the Hudson River Valley but had special resonance around the central greenbelt of New York City’s outer-island borough, with its dense woods and disreputable state-run institutions.
In 1987, with the disappearance of a developmentally-disabled girl near the greenbelt, and further reports of other missing children, these flashlight-under-the-chin stories took on a genuinely scary aspect. Zeman and Brancaccio, both now filmmakers, return to their old haunts, so to speak, to investigate the chilling case of local drifter/creep Andre Rand. Rand was convicted for the girl’s abduction but not for her murder, even though her body was found in the woods near his makeshift encampment. They interview family members, search volunteers and law enforcement officials, most of who are convinced that Rand is responsible for the disappearance of the other missing children. An attempt is made to interview the prisoner himself, but after a series of increasingly bizarre letters sent from his Riker’s Island cell, the obtuse Rand elects to keep his own counsel.
Is Andre Rand the real Cropsey? The greater canvas on which this tragedy is painted is the greenbelt area itself. It had been home to a tuberculosis ward, a poor farm and the Willowbrook State School, a notorious institution that once housed, in the most appalling conditions imaginable, New York’s most severely mentally disabled children (Rand had once been employed there as an orderly). The ghostly abandoned hulk of the school, and the extensive tunnel system underneath it, still seem to echo with awful institutional memories. It is a perfect location for some real life scares as Zeman and Brancaccio decide it would be a great idea to grab their camera and tour the buildings at night alone.
“Cropsey” succeeds so well because it can work on different levels—as a crime story, a look at the bad karma that rebounds from societal abuses and for it’s built-in appeal for the urban explorer crowd or just those with fond memories of “The Blair Witch Project.” Underlying the whole film is a sense of the power of place in our lives, and the enigmatic hold it can have on people is shown on the faces of uneasy residents who find it hard to discern “the facts from the folklore.” Even in our self-absorbed electronic age, these feelings emanating out from the natural world still hold sway, as they have done since time immemorial. It is interesting to note the misgivings of a Native American tribe that inhabited Staten Island long before Dutch settlers arrived. They named it Aquehonga Monocknong—“the place of the bad woods.”