As I mentioned in my previous review for the 1981 slasher flick The Burning, I wanted to learn more about the urban legend which brought the shear killer Cropsy to life. This is something that I was not familiar with, and on getting background information for the review, I stumbled across this rather interesting documentary. Brought to us by Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio the story takes us from the urban legend of Cropsey, an escaped mental patient, who was said to lurk beneath the abandoned tunnels of derelict mental institution Willowbrook State School, a story told to kids around camp fires to keep them from straying, and develops into something much more. The makers involved begin talking about their experiences growing up on Staten Island, as they tour around creepy empty buildings, Willowbrook, previously a facility for mental patients, which was at the heart of a shocking expose some years beforehand, and an abandoned hospital for terminal patients. They do a great job painting the picture of how the urban legend of Cropsey was widespread folklore in the days of their youth, as they describe their fear when exploring these places as children. Some said Cropsey wielded an axe, others said he had a hook for a hand, there were many versions, but the consensus was he hunted the tunnels of these forgotten places, and his prey was that of innocent children. Staten Island, of the 70s and 80s is painted as somewhere which while being forgotten, a dumping ground for the city’s waste, landfill, the mentally ill, those with terminal disease, it was also somewhere with a strong sense of community. In fact the theme of community shines through in this piece as the story quickly develops into an investigation into missing children throughout the 70s and 80s and the consequent incarceration of suspected child killed Andre Rand.
The documentary works on two levels, firstly concentrating on the friends, family, journalists, and police involved in the hunt for missing Downs Syndrome girl Jennifer Schweiger, in 1987, who unfortunately was later discovered to have been murdered and buried in a shallow grave. We are presented with a vast amount of present day interview material and archive footage which outlines the desperation, pain and anguish experienced by those searching for the girl at the time of her disappearance. This is a real story of community and how an urban legend can quickly become reality, shattering the lives of those concerned. The strength and feelings of the people effected by this tragedy is excellently portrayed as the story crosses over from myth into real life events. As the story progresses the makers develop the theme further to look at other cases of missing children during this period, establishing a link with 3 others, and looking at the mystery surrounding their disappearances. No other bodies were ever found, with no explanation as to what has happened, we follow the investigation as it desperately searches for some answers. Central to the piece is the story of Andre Rand, convicted of the kidnap of Jennifer and incarcerated since 1987, questions are asked as to whether Rand had anything to do with the other children going missing. Having worked as an orderly at the infamous Willowbrook institution, Rand was a suspect in some of the other cases and certainly has a dodgy past. He was convicted of attempted rape of a 9 year old girl in 1969, and in 1983 also served time for kidnapping a group of children on a bus. As he was due for parole at the time of filming the story takes yet another interesting turn to focus on the indictment of Rand on charges of the suspected murder of Holly Hughes who went missing in 1981, the court case which ensues, and the evidence which surrounds the case. Speaking with the lawyers involved, police who investigated the original case, and scrutinizing the evidence the makers try to piece together the answers to the questions so many people want resolved. Another interesting aspect to the feature is the involvement of Rand, as Joshua and Barbara try to build a relationship with him through correspondence in the hope he may confide in them and give the information they need. However as the documentary develops the makers find themselves with no answers simply more and more questions; did Rand work alone? there is the suggestion he worked for a Satanic cult fetching bodies for their sacrificial ceremonies, or that he was some Charles Manson-like leader of the homeless people living under the tunnels of Willowbrook, able to influence them into helping him collect and murder innocent children. Speculation is rife and everyone seems to have their own theory. The film also looks at the rather flimsy case surrounding Rand’s conviction, was he a scapegoat? The guy was convicted of the second killing purely on circumstantial evidence, was he capable of luring and murdering these children? The archive footage of him shown at the time of his original arrest portrays him as a gormless idiot bum, as some of those involved with both Rand and the story suggest he was merely a face, describing how the media manipulated public emotion toward the man, and he was already deemed guilty before proved otherwise. Yet there are many within the narrative who can place Rand in and around the areas at the time these children went missing. Some even reporting to have witnessed Rand with the victims, evidence which did not come to light at the time of the original investigation.
The second level we see working in this piece is the notion of how the lines between myth and reality can become blurred. Everyone has something to say about Andre Rand, and they are all eager to offer up their own opinions as to what has happened. Yet as in a true case of Chinese whispers the story takes a rolling stone effect, gathering the moss of so many stories about Rand it begins to get more and more fantastical. Many of the eyewitness accounts which placed Rand at the scene of the disappearance of Holly Hughes are called into question, are these to be believed, or did after all the coverage of this case people simply misremember what happened? Some of the evidence looks questionable. The film however seems to make no attempt to pass one view off in favour of the other, instead focusing on a well balanced account leaving the viewers to make their own conclusions.
Well worth mentioning the opening scenes of this documentary were extremely creepy, following Joshua and Barbara, as they revisited some of the places which haunted them in their childhood. The story behind Willow Brook is equally as terrifying with archive footage of the expose from young reporter Geraldo Rivera in 1972 which I immediately recognised as will others who have seen American Horror Story Asylum, in that it appears to have been plaguerised for the expose of Briarcliff carried out by Lana Winters. Intentional or coincidental I cannot say but there are obvious similarities between the two.
I was pleasantly surprised in watching Cropsey, it turned out to be something totally unexpected and very engaging. Ultimately the story of people, community and how the horror of real life can become something far worse than an urban legend, it is definitely worth checking out whether you are a fan of the fictional Cropsy or not. The Boogeyman is real and this is the stuff nightmares are made of.