Filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio set out to make a movie about the Staten Island myth Cropsey: an escaped mental patient who lives in an abandoned institute out in the woods. What was intended to be a simple look at an urban legend soon leads them to stories of child abduction, satanic cults, and a man named Andre Rand who could very well be Cropsey himself.
From the "Cropsey" Wiki-page:
Upon shooting their research of the origins of the missing kids’ stories, Zeman and Brancaccio realized that the truth did not dwindle into something concrete; instead, it expanded into something large and convoluted. What began as Jennifer’s missing story became an in depth investigation of five missing children’s stories. The objective was to bring the distinct elements into one overarching narrative: the oral tradition of urban legends; the mystery of the missing children; the courtroom drama; the search for the roots of Staten Island’s obsession with the case, the community’s need for catharsis.
Now I know that a wiki-page is the worst place to get information but that little tidbit actually best describes what "Cropsey" WANTS to do. Plus it saves me time from having to ramble on about what the goal of the documentary is. Because unfortunately, "Cropsey" is another one of those documentaries that has two sides; the side of what it wants to be and the side of what it actually is. I'll tell you now, what "Cropsey" is, is a glorified TV forensics special. Because the movie is essentially about an urban legend I wasn't expecting answers or facts but I was at least expecting a cohesive idea.
What you get with "Cropsey" are two rookie filmmakers/documentarians who start off covering what was once the Willowbrook Mental Institution but is now nothing more than an abandoned property serving as home to myths and children's nightmares. It's after the brief history of the location and the story of the cropsey legend that the movie branches off in a hundred different directions, all supposedly tying back to the cropsey myth and derelict Institute. One minute "Cropsey" is trying to invoke the atmosphere of a horror movie and become this quasi "Blair Witch Project" movie, showing you spooky woods and abandoned buildings with campfire stories. All basically trying to set a mood and do a bit of genre bending of documentary and horror movie. Then it snaps back to reality with stories of missing children, then it becomes about Andre Rand -- the living 'cropsey' who was convicted of the abduction and murder of the missing children. It finally wraps up with covering stories about satanic cults and human sacrifices that have been reported of occurring in the woods. Mix it in with interviews from people who were involved in the missing children cases and general members of Staten Island's populace -- all of whom looked like they were just dragged out of the gutter and put in front of a camera, and you've got "Cropsey".
Even though the movie claims to have an objective and wants to cover the wide spectrum of stories and events that relate back to the location of the cropsey myth. What you actually get is a convoluted mess of mixed stories and sensationalism with no real clear idea or point by the end. The most frustrating of which is the story of Andre Rand -- his story takes up the majority of the movie's runtime and is handled very poorly and is no better than something you would see on "Cold Case Files". Rand didn't seem like he was intended to be the focal point -- the legend of cropsey was, but they put such a focus on Rand that the whole movie might as well have been and should have been about him. Since there are other stories being covered, Zeman and Brancaccio jog through the information regarding Rand's case giving little to no attention to the facts and the details about his arrest and eventual conviction. They don't give us enough information to fully understand that if this man was arrested based on circumstantial evidence or if there was actual something there. Instead we get countless interviews with whatever toothless crack fiend or retired cop that wanted to talk about Rand's supposed guilt.
Where "Cropsey" fails at delivering proper information in regards to Andre Rand and in general the coverage it deserves; it unintentionally shows how faulty the US justice system is. The U.S. and people in the U.S. like to pride ourselves on our justice system: innocent until proven guilty, as they say. "Cropsey" shows how quickly though it becomes guilty until proven innocent -- that quick answers and mob mentality make way instead of facts. Then again, were there indeed enough facts to prove Rand's guilt? I don't know since Zeman and Brancaccio decided that talking to John and Jane Smith while they gave their unneeded point-of-view was more important than covering the fact of Rand's case and what it was that got him convicted. What information, or rather lack there of, they do give us seems to indicate that Rand was a guy at the wrong place at the wrong time and became the scape goat to give Staten Island's population piece of mind that they had caught cropsey himself. When you look at Andre Rand himself and the games he plays with the filmmakers and the court system, it isn't hard to believe that he very well could have done it. Again, even though Rand becomes the focal point of the movie, sensationalism and creating atmosphere was more important to the filmmakers instead of covering the facts and non-facts. In one instance we get footage of an "eye-witness", a young woman, who looked like she had come off a drug binge (It's the woman in the last picture at the bottom.) and was a "witness" many years ago and is only now coming forward. Not only is she now coming forward, only decade later and looks like her credibility is dubious, but her account is seeing a man in a mask taking one of the missing children in a car. How does she know it was Rand if he was in a car and wearing a mask? Good question, but do we know if her obviously weak testimonial was accepted? Nope, but we do get to see an interview with her being considered as an actual witness and as a result, making us lose faith in the justice system just a bit more.
Another unintentional aspect that the movie managed to cover is how twisted and perverse people's minds are when it comes to urban legends and actual crimes. Among all the countless and extremely unnecessary interviews with people from Staten Island, one thing became clear: What these people claimed went on was for more disturbing and depraved than what actually went on. For example: during one of the more ridiculous sequences; we have our filmmakers walking through the buildings at the abandoned institute -- "Blair Witch Style" POV footage -- we get to hear people talk about the colony of homeless people that live on this property. (Again, no proof of this only hearsay but believable in the long run.) We then get the inevitable story about how some person went through the building before and saw a mattress in one of the rooms and there was a pair of little girl panties on the mattress. Even though we didn't see this ourselves and there are in fact homeless children out there; we get to hear people talk about how these homeless men abduct little girls, rape them, and then pass them around in some sort of homeless gang-bang ritual. You hear stories like these through out the entire movie and it actually does a lot to relate to the creating and birth of a legend -- that it has more to do with people's imagination and how imagination becomes distorted as fact. Sadly, it was nothing more than an unintentional point and connection.
With a documentary that's about an urban legend and a missing children's case that resulted in the conviction of a man with little fact, I wasn't expecting any sort of 'answer' from "Cropsey". I would have liked a general cohesiveness between the different stories and their connections to the cropsey myth. Instead, what I got was crossbreed of horror and documentary that chose wanting to create atmosphere instead of presenting facts -- which is fine, I suppose. I just don't think that facts should become secondary to sensationalism and having the details pushed aside in order to make a "creepy documentary". Prime example: When we could have been given the facts about Andre Rand's case we instead got random scenes of people walking around the woods and the buildings of the institute. Again, those scenes and moments were tossed into the mix for the sole purpose of creating/adding to the 'horror' atmosphere. Just like the coverage towards the end that was indicating that there is a satanic cult on Staten Island, whose home is the Willowbrook Institute and that the children were human sacrifices. No real proof of this but plenty of hearsay from "witnesses" -- again more sensationalism, less fact.
Documentaries are tricky, I am aware of this, and "Cropsey" is far from being the first documentary that went for entertainment first and documentary second. So I'm not ready to throw stones at Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio, especially since both are new to the game. There certainly are some interesting things in "Cropsey" and Andre Rand is an interesting character -- Zeman and Brancaccio just didn't succeed at completing their objectives. They took a convoluted story and made a convoluted documentary that doesn't have a cohesive narrative and ends up making more accidental points that purposeful ones. It is a shame that so many professional news venues seemed to buy into the movie's (because I'd sooner call "Cropsey" a movie than a documentary) atmosphere and sensationalist tactics.