Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman did not know each other when they were growing up, but they both lived on Staten Island and were well aware of the urban legend of Cropsey, a maniac who allegedly stalked the area and made his home in the tunnels below the long-abandoned Willowbrook Mental Hospital. Coming together as adults to direct a film exploring the subject, "Cropsey" combines the horror of the notorious folklore whispered about at summer camps (and used as the premise for 1981's pretty good slasher film "The Burning
") with a true-crime documentary detailing the story of five children, several of them disabled, who mysteriously disappeared in the area over a fifteen-year timespan between 1972 and 1987. The connection between the two is an admitted stretch, never quite gelling as it should since the Cropsey legend seems to be used as more of a gimmick than an in-depth study on the topic. Nevertheless, "Cropsey" is frequently riveting and certainly creepy as a look into the missing childrens' cases and their freaky connections to Willowbrook and the neighboring Seaview Hospital and Tuberculosis Ward.
When 12-year-old Jennifer Schweiger, a young girl with Down syndrome, mysteriously vanished in July 1987, a fevered search throughout the New York borough commenced. Her body was ultimately found half-buried near the Willowbrook property, and a one-time orderly at the hospitala drifter by the name of Andre Randwas fingered as the top suspect. All the evidence was circumstantial, based upon personal testimonies claiming he was seen on Jennifer's street the day she disappeared, and he was sentenced to almost twenty years in prison. These events lead to a suspected correlation between Jennifer and four other missing children, none of them ever found. Might Andre, who eventually admits to taking Jennifer, have been responsible for their kidnappings? Indeed, as soon as he is released, he finds himself back in court again, this time facing the accusations that he had a hand in taking young Holly Ann Hughes in 1981.
"Cropsey" is suitably atmospheric and, based upon the subject matter, naturally chilling. If the Cropsey legend is lacking in a historical context and not quite as thoroughly detailed as it could be, the non-fictional telling of a town left baffled by the perplexing vanishing of their children is well-researched and filled with invaluable archival news footage. Certain revelations are remarkablethat one of the kids who went missing three years after Holly Ann Hughes prominently showed up in the direct background at a news conference about her, clueless of what was to come for himand there is also the provocative suggestion that Geraldo Rivera's 1972 exposé on Willowbrook State School's heinous conditions, leading to its closure a year later, was the catalyst for Andre Rand's crimes. Rand believed children with mental disabilities didn't deserve to live, and his cryptic present-day correspondences with directors Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman from behind bars bring further clues into his twisted mind.
Late in the film, Brancaccio and Zeman explore the broken-down Willowbrook property in a scene that tries too hard to be a real-life version of "The Blair Witch Project
" and feels exploitative. It also doesn't add up to anything and probably should have been excised from the final edit. Meanwhile, questions posed by the filmmakers, such as Rand's connection to an underground cult, don't offer answers but add to the mythology. Where "Cropsey" gets its power, though, despite its storytelling flaws, is in the enduring mystery of what happened to the other four missing children, and the knowledge that an actual boogeyman once livedand may still lurkon Staten Island. People like Donna Cutugno, tireless founder of The Friends of Jennifer, haven't given up their fight to bring justice to these kids. Donna, an inspiring interview subject throughout, is seen still searching for them to this day, over twenty years out. She hasn't forgotten.