Directed by Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio
Written and produced by Joshua Zeman
1 hour 29 minutes
This is part two of my Halloween double-feature.
I’ve written elsewhere about Zeman & Co.’s excellent Killer Legends. Cropsey is its forerunner, and a comparison between the two shows the filmmaker’s artistic development.
Zeman and Brancaccio, Staten Island natives, return to examine both a legend and a series of crimes that haunted their childhood. “Cropsey,” according to local lore, is a maniac, a former inmate of an asylum now living in the institution’s ruins, who snatches children. Reality and story collided in the 1970s and 80s, when a number of children vanished from the streets of Staten Island. Only one was ever found, and the discovery of her body on the grounds of an abandoned asylum led to the prosecution and conviction of one Andre Rand. The kicker? Rand was a former orderly at that very asylum, with mental health problems of his own, who lived among the ruins. Cropsey had come to life.
Zeman and Brancaccio retrace the kidnappings attributed to Rand as they follow his second kidnapping trial, in 2004. Cropsey’s investigation down a number of very dark rabbit holes, from Satanic cults to organized pedophilia, is both a strength and weakness; while it succeeds in portraying the mystery and horror of the crimes, it makes the film just a tad unfocused. Killer Legends, despite following four crimes, feels much more unified, so the team learned from experience between films.
The film’s most important facet is its focus on how our society has treated the developmentally disabled and the mentally ill: the asylum, Willowbrook, is at the center of the story both geographically and morally; Geraldo Rivera’s big break was a muckraking segment that exposed the horrific conditions at Willowbrook; Rand’s mother was sent to a similar institution during his youth; as several of the children kidnapped had some form of developmental or learning disability, one motive proposed, and supposedly confirmed by Rand, is that he wanted to eliminate “defective” human beings such as those who had been his patients.
Cropsey‘s best contribution is as a warning of the consequences of treating a vulnerable group as an inconvenience to be hidden out of sight in a corner. It is from the darkest corners that the greatest evils come.
Now, are you willing to ask what secrets your neighborhood holds?
Stars 4/5: Great on the initial viewing, but repeated watches reveal some structural issues.
‘Fraidy-Cats 4/5: Murder. Asylums. Satan. Sleep with the lights on.
Ick Factor 3/5: Mostly moral disgust at the treatment of vulnerable groups, but also disturbing images of conditions at Willowbrook.