Unable to unearth concrete new facts about the case of murderous Staten Island “pied piper” Andre Rand, documentarians Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio instead exploitatively reprint the legend ad nauseam in Cropsey. A homeless man who camped in and around the grounds of the derelict Willowbrook State School for the mentally challenged, Rand was sent to Sing Sing for the 1987 abduction of a 13-year-old girl with Down’s Syndrome, Jennifer Schweiger. An ostensible psycho—an impression conveyed by a perp-walk photo of him drooling like a lunatic—and also a possible devil-worshipper who prowled the abandoned hospital’s corridors and underground network of tunnels, Rand became Staten Island’s very own Cropsey, a term that, according to a regional historian, is a Hudson Valley catch-all for a madman who preys on innocent children.
The directors grew up in Staten Island spooked by such folklore, which seemed to come true in the form of Rand, even though he wound up behind bars solely thanks to circumstantial evidence. When Rand goes back on trial in 2004, this time for the 1981 snatching of another little girl, the filmmakers begin their own inquiry into the issue of his culpability while also attempting to nab an interview with the alleged kidnapper. What they discover are mounds of scary photos and news clippings, numerous locales happy to talk about the anxious era and advance outlandish rumors, and hospital ruins fit for menacing musical cues and nighttime visits from Zeman and Brancaccio that devolve into apparent outtakes from The Blair Witch Project.
Cropsey casts Rand as a dangerous nutjob while also promoting the notion that he may have been a scapegoat for a community with a history of denial, and in the film’s most tantalizing (yet under-examined) thread, a reporter characterizes the borough as a “dumping ground” where the city deposits its trash and—as evidenced by young Geraldo Rivera’s 1974 expose about horrifically run Willowbrook—its handicapped kids. Yet Zeman’s portentous, trailer-ready narration and the film’s correspondingly manipulative horror-film aesthetics and fondness for creepy suggestions over vigorous journalism, typified by a wannabe-Zodiac “You decide!” ending, turns what might have been a portrait of the boogeyman myth’s lingering societal role into merely a crude episode of 48 Hours.