Friday, December 17, 2010
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews the new documentary "Cropsey."
Urban legends about escaped lunatics or axe-welding killers have been scaring kids at summer camp for decades. In their new documentary, filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio explore the Staten Island myth of “Cropsey” (opening December 17 at Reading Gaslamp Stadium Theaters).
Like many living on Staten Island, filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio grew up with the local Boogeyman legend of Cropsey who allegedly lived in the woods, and abducted and killed small children. They interview local residents who recall learning about Cropsey in summer camp and hearing such varied info as "he was a doctor… he was supposed to have a hook…had a knife about this big… he was an axe welding madman…"
But then in 1987, their urban legend became real. Andre Rand, a man described as a drifter, was arrested and convicted of killing a mentally handicapped girl. The girl was the latest in a series of real missing children cases that had plagued Staten Island for more than a decade. But evidence was circumstantial.
So some, like former Staten Island Eagle newspaper editor Jim Callighan, questioned whether the right man was in jail: "I used to teach the Andre Rand story in my journalism class, coming down the steps of the courthouse with the headline drifter arrested well what does that mean? It means guilty right? Whether he is or not I don't know. But it's lot easier to do it that way than to say you know what it might be someone on your block, or somebody you work with."
That's part of the horror that "Cropsey" explores – what if there is a real monster in our midsts, a person that you either know or that you see around the neighborhood and he is a killer? How does a community react to that? And could the need to find a killer cause the kind of hysteria that could lead to the wrong person being arrested?
"Cropsey" tries to separate fact from folklore, and evidence from hysteria. The result is a horror documentary. Zeman and Brancaccio use a second trial fro Rand as the catalyst for their investigation. They try to talk to as many people as they can from the Staten Island area to create a portrait of fear. Films like "The Blair Witch Project" use a fake documentary format to try and create a horror film about an urban myth that turns out to be real. "Cropsey," though, is the real deal. The filmmakers pace their story well and build tension and fear in the way a horror film usually does.
For parents, it highlights the terror of losing a child, and the fear that someone you know might actually be a killer. Plus there are peripheral things the film digs up like news archive footage of a state hospital (with a very young Geraldo Rivera as the journalist uncovering the story) where Rand worked and where conditions for mental patients were truly horrifying. There's even a quietly chilling moment when a Staten Island resident casually notes that Staten Island is a dumping ground. It not only has a garbage dump big enough "to see from space" but it's a place where people have been known to dump bodies as well.
"Cropsey" (unrated but for mature audiences) is a compelling and creepy look at how we cope with real life horrors. We can use urban legends to distance ourselves from real horrors, or to scare our kids into staying close to home and not talk to strangers. We can use them to make our fears more manageable, and to make it possible to live with the truly horrifying things in our lives by pretending they are just stories.
Companion viewing: "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," "Man Bites Dog," "Capturing the Friedmans"
If you are a myKPBS Film Club member you can download a discount coupon for "Cropsey."