A too-long exploration of too many blind alleys, Cropsey pulls out all the scary-movie stops. Plinkety-plonk piano music plays over voiceover pronouncements about how “every suburbia has its secrets” and talk of Cropsey, the axe-wielding or hook-handed bogeyman Staten Island kids used to scare each other with. Meanwhile, the camera creeps across forest floors or pans the now-deserted interiors of the infamous Willowbrook home for the developmentally disabled, which are often filmed at night, for no reason other than to make them look that much creepier. But that carefully constructed sense of dread doesn’t jibe with the central story, an amateur-detective exploration of the presumed kidnappings and murders of a series of Staten Island children.
For a while, it looks as if Cropsey is going to be about a community’s scapegoating of an innocent man. After Jennifer Schweiger, a good-natured little girl with Down’s syndrome, disappeared from her home in 1987, police arrested a disturbed-looking homeless man, André Rand, who was soon found guilty of her kidnapping. There was no evidence linking the two, though Schweiger’s body was found on the grounds of Willowbrook, where Rand had worked as a custodian and where he went back to live after it was closed. While Rand was in prison, the Staten Island police revisited their cold cases involving missing children, decided that four might be linked to Schweiger’s killing, and put Rand on trial for the killing of a second young girl. This time, plenty of witnesses were available to link him neatly to the crime.
A little too neatly, perhaps. The voiceover’s many references to scapegoating give credence to the skepticism that is expressed by many of the people interviewed, who claim the locals needed a bogeyman to blame for the disappearance of innocent children and found a handy one in Rand. But just as we’re almost convinced that Rand is a kind of real-life Boo Radley, Cropsey switches course. Unaccountably late in the game, the filmmakers start to look into who Rand really is, and they learn things about his past, his reported ideas about the need to “cleanse the world” of people with developmental disabilities, the “more and more bizarre” letters he wrote to them, and even a reported admission of guilt that make it look as if the police might have arrested the right man after all.
Co-directors Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zernan (he wrote the script and does the voiceover) sometimes put themselves on camera, playing detective as they plumb the mystery of who killed those kids. But they’re more Inspector Clouseau than Nancy Drew, giving every kooky theory they encounter equal time and failing to ask some basic follow-up questions. For instance, why did Rand’s sister say she thought he was manipulating the filmmakers? Why did the cops think those four other cases might be connected to Schweiger’s? If Rand told the minister he stayed with just before his arrest that he killed Schweiger, why didn’t the minister testify during his trial? Meanwhile, they keep going off on tangents, often repeating themselves in the process. And the more they talk about urban legends, rumors of devil worship and necrophilia, or the fact that Staten Island has long been a dumping ground for New York City’s detritus, the less I understood what any of that has to do with the deaths of these kids.
By the time it fizzles to an end, Cropsey hasn’t shown us anything to match the horror of the 1972 TV exposé of Willowbrook it excerpts. Whatever you may think about the young reporter who filed that report, you gotta admit: Geraldo Rivera knows how to tell a story.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.