Sunday, August 08, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Cropsey (2009)

Filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio open their critically-acclaimed 2009 documentary, Cropsey with a brief re-cap of a popular and long-lived urban legend; one that the movie explicitly positions in Staten Island, the least-populated and most heavily-wooded borough in the state of New York.

By the filmmakers' own account, the mythical figure called Cropsey is a hook or axe-wielding maniac who reputedly dwelt in the woods near a vast abandoned institution for mentally-retarded children, the notorious Willowbrook State School which Robert Kennedy famously termed a "snake pit" and which the movie aptly describes as the "the Town's Leper Colony."

You can view a clip from Geraldo Rivera's famous, and authentically-disturbing 1972 expose on Willowbrook here. It's not for the feint of heart, so gird yourself.

Parents in the immediate area surrounding the 365-acre "school" -- from the 1970s through the 1980s -- warned their children not to play near the grounds...for fear that Cropsey would strike.

Thus Cropsey is a local Bogeyman figure, the filmmakers establish, one "lurking in the shadows," waiting to abduct and murder the good, unsuspecting children of Staten Island. He's a bedtime fairy tale parents warn their kids about to keep them in line (and keep them safe).

Even before the documentary's opening credits begin, the directors enunciate their central thesis, which -- simply stated -- is this:

What if the urban legend of Cropsey is real?

Despite this tantalizing opening gambit connecting Willowbrook State School, convicted kidnapper, Andre Rand (alias Frank Rushan), and Staten Island itself to the regional, long-standing Cropsey urban legend, this is not actually the case Zeman and Brancaccio present in the text of their feature film. In fact, the stated thesis is virtually ignored.

Specficially, murder suspect Andre Rand's connection to the legend of the so-called "Cropsey Maniac" is tenuous at best, fatuous at worst.

In no meaningful, substantive or even rudimentary fashion does Cropsey explore the urban legend of, well, Cropsey. There is no discussion whatsoever of of the killer's unusual name --- Cropsey -- a moniker that may have originated in Brooklyn, near Cropsey Avenue (around Coney Island) and in close relation to the Creedmore Psychiatric Center, constructed in 1912.

There is no mention of the fact that the word "crop" means to "cut off" or to "cut very short," a verbal approximation of this killer's murderous activities. Or that to crop also means "to harvest" and "sow," and that this legendary killer "sows" revenge for the wrongful murder of a member of his family. All of these aspects of the urban legend are important...they hint at the reasons why this particular tale exists and flourishes from one generation to the next.

Nor is there discussion in Cropsey of the fact that, in the early eighties, a cult slasher film called The Burning featured a villainous killer called "Cropsy," and that the character stalked a summer camp...the location for most Cropsey tales, going back to the disco-decade. A clip or still from the pertinent film might have been nice; revealing how the urban legend arrived in the pop culture lexicon and expanded its grasp on the popular imagination.

Now, both filmmakers do offer thoughtful, careful interview answers on these particular subjects (the urban legend and the movie) when asked specifically about them. For instance, at Cinema Blend, Zeman and Brancaccio describe ably other variations of the Cropsey tale, and the details of The Burning...but if the viewer seeks any of this substantive information in the film's actual text, he or she will be sorely disappointed. It's entirely ignored.

Contrarily, scholars in American folklore have studied the various Cropsey myths in detail since at least 1977 (Lee Haring, and Mark Breslerman. New York Folklore: "The Cropsey Maniac," Volume 3, Summer-Winter, 1977, page 15).

In 2006, folklorist Libby Tucker usefully summarized the urban legend in an article for Voices, called "Cropsey at Camp:"

"According to the Cropsey legend’s usual plot line, Cropsey was a respected community member who lived near the camp with his son. When a couple of campers accidentally caused his son’s tragic death, Cropsey went mad and swore that he would get revenge. Running off to hide in a shack in the woods, he waited until the anniversary of his son’s death. Then he randomly chose a camper to attack with an axe. The unfortunate camper died instantly. If I were a counselor telling this story to a group of campers huddled around a campfire, I would end the story with its usual clincher: “Cropsey is still out in these woods. Tonight is the anniversary of his son’s death, and he may pay a visit to your bunk at midnight. Good luck!”

Tucker further writes about the hunt for the historical Cropsey

...My first example comes from Maureen Berliner, who posted her recollections of Cropsey stories on the popular web site ( in 1997. Her earliest memories of Cropsey scares date back to the mid-1970s. Berliner remembers that the first camp she attended, Camp Orensika Sonikwa, had a framed article hanging on the wall: a copy of the original newspaper piece about Cropsey. This piece of proof seems to confirm that Cropsey is a real person..."

Right here, as one can immediately detect, there's a trail to excavate in discovering the truth or non-truth of the Cropsey urban legend, the stated purpose of this cinematic documentary. Maureen Berliner, former attendee at Camp Orenskia Sonikwa, claims to have seen a newspaper article that features the story of the real Cropsey. So...why wasn't this article tracked down, or its existence disputed in the film?

In the movie, there is zero follow-up on claims of this sort; no attempt whatsoever to uncover the documented origination of the proverbial Cropsey. There is no interview with Berliner either, who claims to have seen such documentation with her own eyes. Furthermore, the movie does not investigate the variations of the myth at locations like Surprise Lake Camp, also surveyed by Tucker, a folklore teacher at Binghamton University. The filmmakers, it seems, actually feel no interest in determining if there is an historical Cropsey, who he might actually be, or where his story may have originated.

So the documentary, Cropsey, is very much a case of bait-and-switch. The movie is called Cropsey, and the text of the film suggests that the "urban legend" of Cropsey is real...but it makes no attempt to find if there is, actually, a historical Cropsey.

Instead, the movie very much involves the true-crime case of the inscrutable, suspicious Andre Rand, and his guilt or innocence in a series of kidnappings and murders on Staten Island, crimes spanning the years 1972 - 1987. In particular, Rand was apprehended for the disappearance of 12-year old Jennifer Schwieger in 1987. The original New York Times article on his capture is available here.

Mysteriously, Jennifer's corpse was discovered on the grounds of Willowbrook almost immediately following reports in the media of Rand's capture, despite the fact that search teams had gone over that very area before and found nothing. Some suspected a frame-up.

This is indeed a disturbing criminal case, and a tragic one without many answers. But it doesn't involve Cropsey or his urban legend in any substantive way.

If you want to find the truth of the legendary Cropsey (again, the stated goal of this film...), I submit, the way to go about it, is to learn all the variations of the long-lived story, and determine if a man named Cropsey ever really lived.

And then, if he did, pinpoint the locations of the crimes he is responsible for. Did crimes occur there? Who was guilty? Are the crimes still occurring? Or is the legend merely...a legend.

Significantly, Cropsey makes no effort to put Rand at the scene of any Cropsey crimes save for the so-called "unlucky seven" on Staten Island. The movie thus makes no effort to connect Rand's story to the actual details of the urban legend (the plot for revenge because of a family member's unjust death), for instance.

In other words, the use of the name Cropsey in this film is a total gimmick. The pre-existing Cropsey urban legend is not the subject of the film at all. Accordingly, the film's thesis is never proven....or even addressed, actually. The film ends, and there is no exploration of whether or not the "urban legend is real." No real connection has been made between Rand and the details of Cropsey's tale.

Unfortunately, this bait-and-switch in presentation fits in with the filmmakers' unfortunate tendency to sensationalize their story. First, they seize on subject matter their movie doesn't truly concern -- the Cropsey urban legend -- and then, they inject themselves into the proceedings, at about the hour-point, to explore the dark, "scary" tunnels of Willowbrook.

In pitch-black night, of course...

Front and center before the camera, our two intrepid documentarians bicker. "I'm going in there," insists Joshua, looking into the dark abyss of Willowbrook. "I'm not going in there," counters Barbara Brancaccio. "I'm going in there," Joshua reiterates.

This debate goes back and forth, and you get the sense the filmmakers are trying to re-capture some of the magic of The Blair Witch Project.

On the dark grounds, the filmmakers (with the camera on, naturally...) just happen to encounter a group of strangers armed with blinding flashlights. The strangers turn out to be local kids. False alarm! But the subject of the film at this point is Devil Worship and Devil Cults, and so this image of dark, silhouetted strangers adds to the storyline's creepy vibe.

Indeed, this whole incident seems awfully contrived. Would a good, earnest documentarian really undertake this expedition to Willowbrook at night? Especially knowing that the tunnel system is still ostensibly populated by the homeless? With Rand, the movie's alleged Bogeyman behind bars, what were the filmmakers seeking there at night? A jolt moment for the audience, apparently.

Or, perhaps-- like the title of the film itself -- this scene is another slick attempt to ramp up the marketable, sensational aspects of the documentary. One wishes the filmmakers had resisted the urge to inject themselves into the action as on-screen personalities, like characters in a horror movie. It feels a tad cheap, especially given that the real, tragic subject matter of the film involves children who were murdered, and the pain their parents still carry to this day.

Despite such considerable concerns and questions about the film's organization and presentation, there are many elements of Cropsey that are indeed highly laudable, and impressive. Like some true-life variation on Rod Serling's "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," the movie carefully makes the case that the community of Staten Island has literally become unhinged by the terrifying abductions and murders. So desperate is the community (down to the police officers), to catch a culprit (any culprit...), that Rand is brought to trial and convicted with no real physical or forensic evidence connecting him to at least one of the disappearances. In their need to find and punish a monster, these good people seem to fall into a kind of blind hysteria. They are so desperate for "closure" that they don't stop to think if the right man has been apprehended.

One of the victim's fathers seems to understand this mistake and the rush to judgment. "Closure is a bullshit word," he suggests. His daughter is likely dead, her body has never been located, and he will never really know for sure the facts of her whereabouts, even if "the law" has deemed Rand guilty and put him behind bars. What kind of closure is that, really? It's cover-your-ass closure; meant to soothe a worried, possibly dangerous mob.

In the community's eyes, Rand has ascended to the level of literally, as the headlines scream, a "Hannibal Lecter." In the press, in the community, in the shared history of Staten Island, Rand becomes not merely a very sick man, but something infinitely worse, and far more evil. He's "a white-trash Jim Jones," mesmerizing a cult-following of the (dangerous...) homeless on the grounds of Willowbrook. He's a "necrophiliac," having sex with corpses in a local graveyard. He's involved in Satanic, devil-worshipping activities, holding black mass by moonlight. As the film rightly points out at this juncture, it's impossible to distinguish "facts from folklore" in Rand's case.

But again, this is not the folklore of Cropsey, the urban legend. That's an important distinction. This is a community's faulty but understandable way of dealing with something authentically horrible. If the movie had been called Rand, or Disappearances at Willowbrook, I'd have nothing to complain about because the filmmakers have done a fine, admirable, extremely dedicated job examining the Rand case. But they named the film Cropsey; they opened with the supposition that maybe, just maybe, Cropsey's urban legend is real. And then they don't follow through on any of it.

But again, I can't dismiss this movie out-of-hand. Another fascinating aspect of Cropsey involves the fashion in which the filmmakers build a case for the "subterranean," secret history of Staten Island. With maps, good location photography, interviews, and TV news footage, the movie explains, in assiduous detail, how Staten Island was, for much of its existence, a dumping ground. In one corner, you've got the Farm Colony, where tuberculosis patients were left to rot. At Willowbrook, nearly five-thousand mentally-retarded kids were warehoused, forgotten and ignored by society at large. And the island is also "one big garbage dump" for New York City, a dump so large it can be seen from Earth "orbit," as an interviewee humorously notes.

What are the psychological ramifications of this bizarre, dark history? What undercurrents are at large? The movie points out that when Willowbrook was closed in the mid-1980s, many patients took to the hospital's tunnel system, remaining on the grounds as squatters. They became, as the movie describes them, "a whole underground of people." Underground people, subterranean history? What must this past do to the psyche of a community?

And, as the movie also points out, it's easier to blame those "underground people" for a terrible crime than to look to your affluent neighbor down the street. Andre Rand may very well be guilty of the crimes he was convicted of; but he's also a very convenient suspect. His famous (drooling...) perp walk shows him to be mentally-ill, at least.

Cropsey is not really about a famous urban legend, as it promises. It fails resoundingly to deliver on its thesis. But on the other hand, the movie gets powerfully at the idea that our society looks for scapegoats, not necessarily the guilty, when something terrible occurs. The movie proves that we don't always seek truth; sometimes we just seek monsters to punish. And in pursuing that quest, we elevate a flawed man to the realm of urban legend. Rand isn't Cropsey, but he might as well be, given the news report and hysteria concerning him.

I just squared the circle there, linking Andre Rand to our societal need to create bogeymen, to create urban legends. I wish the movie squared the circle too. It's case -- as I understand it -- is that in pursuing a criminal and trying to undo a great wrong, we sometimes elevate that criminal to "monster" status so we can feel good about punishing him, truth be damned.

That's fine. That's valuable. That's socially illuminating. But it still doesn't explain the mystery of Cropsey. It doesn't explain why the Hudson River Valley is still haunted by this specter. Or why the specter continues to exist after a generation. The filmmakers' case would have been infinitely stronger had they examined and excavated the historical basis for Cropsey -- if there is one -- and then compared that story to Andre Rands'. What would the commonalities be there? What would be learned in the comparison? Why do we make Bogeymen out of real human beings? The movie edges to the precipice of these tantalizing questions, but never pursues the answers.

In summation, Cropsey is very intelligently, very poignantly about the tragic Andre Rand case, yet very exploitatively and sensationally about the Cropsey urban legend. It's one thing sold under the guise of being something else. That the "something else" in this case is actually troubling, compelling, intriguing and inarguably well-presented is sort of beside the point.

Mid-way through the film, Andre Rand expresses the idea that the people and law enforcement officials of Staten Island are "perpetrators of a fraud" and that "evil-ness sells."

Perhaps the makers of Cropsey learned that lesson too well?


  1. This sounds intriguing, John. But, the bait and switch marketing is a bit of turn off. Being from the left-coast and never picking up on the Cropsey urban legend, it's very interesting to learn about it. I think in my neck of woods the camp counselors always tried to frighten us with maniac with the hook for a hand who hunted 'parked' teenyboppers (or something like that). I may try to take this in, John. Thanks for this.

  2. Hi Le0pard13:

    Frankly, I was bummed by the half-hearted way the documentary Cropsey used the NY-region urban legend. It was just a gimmick to get viewers interested.

    And the Andre Rand story is interesting enough without throwing in Cropsey as an attention-grabber. No need for Rand's tale to play second fiddle to an urban legend.

    I wish some reviews of the film had noted that the film never does anything to substantively connect the Cropsey legend to the Rand case.

    Unfortunately the preponderance of news articles and the universally positive movie reviews seem almost be "programmed" by the movie's promotional material and hype.

    These sources take for fact too much, and don't investigate the movie's claims of a connection nearly enough for my taste.

    Thanks for the comment,my friend,


  3. Oh, thanks for this review. I'd been wanting to see this. I might still give a go, but I agree about the bait and switch statement le0pard made. Lame!