Cropsey Review


Directed by: Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman
Written by: Joshua Zeman

Every neighbourhood has its secrets and every city has a dark underbelly. This seems to be one of the unsettling messages we are meant to take away from Cropsey, a documentary exploring the urban legend of a serial killer with a hook for a hand that has been passed down through the generations on Staten Island. When directors Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman decide to dig up the truth behind this tale that they heard as kids, their investigation does not necessarily lead to any earth-shattering revelations. It does, however, take us through some pretty creepy real-life locales and a horrifying true crime story, eventually leaving us to ponder the validity of our own ghost stories.

Back in 1987, Jennifer Schweiger, a 12-year-old girl with Down’s syndrome went missing on Staten Island. Her dead body turned up buried in the woods near the abandoned Willowbrook Mental Institution, and the man who took the blame was Andre Rand, a drifter who had previously worked as an orderly at Willowbrook and was now known to live in makeshift campsites nearby. Although there was never any definite proof that Rand did it, he had a history of sexual abuse and was certainly a creepy enough character to convince residents of his guilt. Several other mentally challenged children also disappeared in the area over the years, but their bodies still have never been recovered. We pick up the thread with Rand due to be released from prison soon, and prosecutors attempting to pin more of the murders on him in the hopes of putting him away for good.

This movie seems to have garnered a reputation as the “real-life Blair Witch Project”, which is not entirely true, but not that far off either. For the most part, it is a documentary that loosely follows an ongoing court case without having much access to the legal teams or the main defendant. At times it feels like your standard made-for-TV documentary with ominous music and narration, and it tells the backstory with the help of various news reports and newspaper clippings. Among these is a disturbing 1972 report from Geraldo Rivera on the horrible conditions of the Willowbrook facilities (which was essentially his big break at the time). Eventually, however, the movie shifts to the present day and becomes much more immediate and involving.

Brancaccio and Zeman decide to hit the streets, talking to people who live in the area–parents of the missing children as well as former acquaintances of Andre Rand–while trying to put together the pieces, to figure out if he is guilty and what really happened to those children. One of the more intriguing elements of the film is their attempt to get an interview with Rand himself. Eventually he starts writing bizarre letters to them and he seems ready to talk, but as time goes on they find themselves wondering if he is just manipulating them.

However, it is when Brancaccio and Zeman go out on location to explore the area surrounding Willowbrook that things really get eerie. They head out into the woods, through some of the places where searches were conducted for the missing children, and find abandoned campsites where some homeless people (including Rand) supposedly lived. They also explore some of the abandoned buildings of the Willowbrook Institution and the tunnels underneath it, which feel a lot like the old house in The Blair Witch Project or the abandoned mental institution in Session 9. These scenes definitely give you goosebumps and get your heart pounding, and while these searches are performed more for the sake of the audience than for the sake of the investigation, there’s no way to fake the foreboding atmosphere of these places.

The fact that Brancaccio and Zeman appear on camera frequently could put off some viewers hoping for a purely “objective” look at the story. On one hand, their demeanor is one of genuine curiosity and they are careful never to sensationalize anything. On the other hand, they are never quick to shoot down wild theories, either, letting stories of devil-worshiping and necrophilia take shape in your mind as definite (albeit remote) possibilities. Like any good ghost story, Cropsey does a good job of feeding your fear and allowing your imagination to run wild. They also jump back and forth between evidence of Rand’s guilt and innocence, ultimately leaving you with plenty of unanswered questions.

In the end, there are still real life murders, a real court case and a compelling mystery behind it all that is worth exploring. If you want a straight-laced documentary that sticks only to the facts or one that examines the inner workings of the legal system, this may not be a movie for you, but if you’re willing to let yourself be played a bit for the sake of entertainment, the movie is extremely well-executed. Although the direct connection between the legend of Cropsey and Andre Rand is never really established, it hardly seems to matter. The movie shows us that sometimes grim reality is just as terrifying as fiction, and that urban legends are not always as fake as they seem. — Sean

Cropsey airs tonight on Investigation Discovery at 9 pm EST.