As children, Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio were among many who scared others and themselves with an urban legend given fictional life with the name of Cropsey - a maniac living in the woods who, with hook or meat cleaver or knife or machete, depending on the teller and the region, would emerge from the shadows to lure kids to their deaths in gruesome fashion. On Staten Island, where Zeman and Brancaccio grew up, Cropsey took on extra resonance thanks to the lingering ghosts of the Willowbrook State School, where mentally ill and developmentally disabled children resided and whose oft-horrific treatment was uncovered by Geraldo Rivera's 1972 expose for WABC-TV.
Such is the groundwork laid for CROPSEY, Zeman and Brancaccio's documentary on where fact meets fiction, where legend meets truth, and where the whispered-about bogeyman came to life in the form of Andre Rand, convicted of kidnapping two children - one murdered, one whose body was never found - and long suspected in the disappearances of several others. And while I exited the screening room tonight in a state of deep thought, I was troubled less by the case and of Rand than of the film's framing and presentation.
When Zeman and Brancaccio stuck to source material and primary interviews, CROPSEY was riveting. Whether showing clips of the filthy squalor of Willowbrook - long abandoned to decay in the woods - depicted in Rivera's documentary, current-at-the-time television coverage of the investigations into what happened to the missing children, or talking with family members, former law enforcement agents and those who had some tenuous connection to Rand, the film's power was unmistakable. These were children who disappeared and whose remains may be buried deep in the ground below and surrounding Willowbrook, and chances remain strong we're never going to know the whole truth of what happened.
But by framing Rand's alleged crimes in the context of an urban legend, CROPSEY unwittingly shoots itself in the foot. The real story has enough open-endedness and troubling questions that asking the audience to view it akin to a horror movie cheapens the entire concept when if anything, more investigation was necessary. And while I admit my own biases probably come into play, CROPSEY spent a little too much time going down blind alleyways. Raising reasonable doubt about Rand's guilt is perfectly fine, in light of the lack of physical evidence to tie him to the kidnappings and (probable and actual) murders. But the minutes spent theorizing about a connection to some sort of Satanic cult - especially in tossing off a reference to "Son of Sam" when David Berkowitz all but admitted it was a crock of shit devised to augment what was a more typical motive for serial murder rooted in insecurity, sexual dysfunction and outsized rage - could have been better spent on a litany of questions that ran through my mind.
For example: Zeman and Brancaccio's need to frame their movie around the urban legend that brought them to the cases came at the expense of unearthing who, exactly, Andre Rand is. It's not his real name: that is Frank Rushan, and while we're privy to a clip of the name-change document, no explanation is given as to why (or even a comment that "no explanation was given as to why.") They do track down his sister - obscuring her face from the camera in an understandable need to protect her identity - but what of school records, old yearbooks if they exist, or even the original record of arrest from 1969, when Rand was picked up for sexually assaulting a 9 year old girl in the South Bronx? Perhaps there's a deliberate metaphor to obscure Rand's background since Staten Island's general public never got to hear him speak in open court, and there is a single recording of Rand's voice left on Zeman's answering machine - the net result of a months-long letter-writing campaign by the filmmakers to secure an interview - but that seems like speculation.
And though the only fleeting reference was someone held up an old newspaper clipping about the "Unlucky Seven" children who went missing in New York City during the 70s and 80s, it was impossible for me not to compare Andre Rand with Jose Antonio Ramos, the longtime prime suspect in the disappearance of Etan Patz 30 years ago last month. Both Rand and Ramos lived transient lives, setting up makeshift camps in out-of-the-way places that were still well within reach of urban dwellings. Adults viewed their respective physical appearances and demeanor with suspicion - the drooling perp walk from Rand's 1987 arrest for Jennifer Schweiger's kidnapping and murder remains an indelible image, as is Ramos's mug shot from roughly the same time period - and yet somehow, they attracted kids to them with some degree of charisma and favors (one witness who testified at Rand's 2004 trial on kidnapping Holly Ann Hughes in 1981 described seeing Holly being enticed by a man with his face covered, holding out candy from his green Volkswagen, and never seeing the girl again after that.) And both Rand and Ramos are fond of playing games, whether dancing around their alleged crimes in letters, inviting people up to come interview them only to turn them down at the last minute, and generally maintaining some illusion of control over those who desperately want to know what happened to these children. And most importantly, the likelihood of physical evidence linking them to their alleged crimes turning up is exceedingly slim at best.
As a film, I view CROPSEY as a victim of its intentions, felled by the need to fashion a narrative that fuses fact and fiction. As a way of getting more and deserved attention about the lost children of Staten Island - Alice Pereia, Holly Ann Hughes, Tiahease Jackson, Jennifer Schweiger and especially 22-year-old Henry Gafforio, whose 1984 disappearance has been hardly written about anywhere (shockingly little information is available online), even as he made an eerie appearance in a newsclip when Holly disappeared three years before - and providing even a cursory glimpse into the unfathomable mind of Andre Rand, CROPSEY is mandatory viewing, even as it raises far more questions than can possibly be answered.
Photo credit: Jin Lee/Staten Island Advance