Urban Legends, or Not
by Molly Templeton
To the credit of directors Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio, low-budget production values and a heavy reliance on stock footage don’t keep the strange documentary Cropsey from being a fascinating look at the place where urban legend and human horror meet and blend. Growing up on Staten Island, N.Y., the directors, like the island’s other kids, heard and told stories about Cropsey, a mythical escaped mental patient who had a hook for a hand, or maybe killed people with an axe — either way, he was out there in the imagination of the residents. (A great sequence shows different island kids, now grown, telling the Cropsey variations they heard.) There was good reason for the stories: Staten Island was home to Willowbrook Mental Institution, the subject of a horrifying 1970s expose by Geraldo Rivera that showed the terrible treatment of its patients. The remnants of the institution — shuttered buildings, lunchroom trays in the woods — figured heavily in the lives of area kids.
Cropsey seemed just a scary story for neighborhood kids — until a little girl disappeared. Eventually, a “drifter” was charged in the case, but the situation was far more complicated than one man and one child. Cropsey tells a complex, emotional story, and the filmmakers aren’t afraid to get in the middle of it. As the arrested man, Andre Rand, nears the date of a second trial, they communicate with him, interview those who helped search for the missing girl and sit patiently outside the courtroom when things finally come to trial. The film doesn’t serve up any more pat, satisfying answers than the trial could, but it does something far more interesting: It explores the way the stories we tell ourselves shape the way we interpret outside events. Watching witnesses explain what they saw, or conspiracy theorists talk about the possibility of Satanic cults, it’s clear that no one really knows what happened to Staten Island’s missing children. But everyone has a story about it. Cropsey () opens at the Bijou Friday, Oct. 21.