By Dirk Sonniksen | August 18, 2010
Directors: Barbara Brancaccio, Joshua Zeman
Writer: Joshua Zeman
Cropsey is the name given to all the evil that lurks in the dark on Staten Island. This urban legend, passed down to each generation, takes on many different guises: Cropsey is the crazed killer brandishing a hook for a hand, or maybe an ax, or the ever-popular butcher knife. But is Cropsey a manifestation of the fears of the young or a bona fide maniac run amok?
In Cropsey, directors Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman attempt to weave the urban legend of Cropsey with the real-life disappearances of young children on Staten Island. Their subject is ultimately Andre Rand, a former employee at a Staten Island mental institution, who is eventually arrested for the kidnapping and murder of Jennifer Schweiger. Rand is convicted, but the story continues as Rand is suspected in the disappearances of more children. Rand’s conviction will bring solace to some, but will also lead to more questions, and further anger a community.
The first thirty minutes of Cropsey kept my interest, with the film presenting a haunting story of childhood fantasy that begins to become very real. The elements were all there: an isolated area of New York, the diabolic history of a mental institution (complete with underground tunnels where wickedness could dwell), and a seemingly crazed former employee of said institution accused of the crime. But regardless of all the creepiness that Cropsey threw into the mix, it ultimately fell apart.
The most glaring issue with Cropsey is the attempt by the filmmakers to successfully meld the urban legend’s namesake with the actual events that grip Staten Island. Although the legends of Cropsey and Rand are very much connected in a sense, it’s as if the two were at odds with one another. The film begins as documentary on urban legend, and slowly begins to transition into the story of Rand, but the transition didn’t work. I began to wonder if I was watching a documentary on urban legend or the story of a disturbed killer.
As for the directors, the appealing commentary of the first half of the documentary gave way to the directors donning their sleuthing hats, and frankly, we see way too much of them. By giving themselves such a dominant role in the film, the credibility of the story suffers. As the detective work progressed, segments began to feel staged—in particular, a scene where our Holmes and Watson team decide to explore (at night?) the remains of the tunnel system in the mental institution. The scene in question is absolutely pointless in relation to the film, and one begins to feel as if they’ve been thrust into a remake of The Blair Witch Project.
The real interest for me in this documentary was the history of Staten Island. The directors interview residents of the island who describe it as a “dumping ground” for all manner of things, both animate and inanimate. From the garbage dump to the mental institutions, these were aspects of the story that helped to elevate this haunted tale. If the directors had focused more on these narratives, or included more of these historical yarns, the film would have fared far better.
Cropsey had a serious edge that ultimately suffered from a fair amount of silly interjections by the directors. Their insistence on probing Rand’s psyche, and their attempts at securing an interview with Rand, stalled an already faltering documentary. This sort of over-indulgence only bogs down a documentary, as this genre is driven by the passion of the filmmaker. Perhaps focusing less on Rand and more on the victims of his crimes would have somehow made Cropsey more worthwhile. While the victims were certainly presented as such, they were undermined by the seemingly celebrity status of Rand and the need of the community to make him the heir to the Cropsey legend.