Playing this Friday & Saturday at MadCap Theaters in Tempe is Cropsey, a 2009 documentary by Barbara Brancaccio & Joshua Zeman. The title is a name used in parts of New York state for the Boogeyman of cautionary urban folklore, the axe- or knife- or hook-wielding maniac who, in the mythos of the campfire or the slumber party, preys on children who stray into the shadowy, desolate parts of town.
The difference on Staten Island, that least glamorous of New York’s Five Boroughs, is that these stories, at least since the ‘80s, have some basis in fact, & even in their horrifyingly gothic details. The filmmakers, who grew up on the island, explore the case of the disappearance of several children & youths, most of them developmentally disabled, from the neighborhoods. The prime suspect, who was convicted & sentenced to 25 years to life for kidnapping one of the victims but has never been linked to any of the disappearances by physical evidence, was a homeless sex offender called Andre Rand.
Though dangerously disturbed himself, Rand had been an orderly at Willowbrook State School, an enormous mental institution the vile abuses of which had been exposed in 1972 by the young Geraldo Rivera in a WABC-TV expose that made Marat/Sade look like Sesame Street (some of Rivera’s nearly unwatchable footage is included in Cropsey). The place was closed & abandoned in 1987, & its graffiti-scrawled ruin, complete with a network of tunnels, had inevitably become the center of the island’s “Cropsey” legends. But it truly was linked, as it turned out, to the case of the vanishing children.
Cropsey is chilling & fascinating & bitterly sad, but it isn’t lurid or sensationalistic. Brancaccio & Zeman generate a macabre atmosphere, but they do it subtly; the overall tone is ruminative, almost like Rashomon on Staten Island. If they were trying to cast doubt on the likelihood of Rand’s guilt, for me they didn’t succeed—the case was clearly driven by community pressure, & the evidence was circumstantial, but I found it pretty persuasive for all that. But the filmmakers obtained some striking potential insights into the nightmare all the same, & they even weave in a bit of historical & social perspective. This is what true-crime documentaries should be, & rarely are.
RIP to the really fine character actor Maury Chaykin, passed on at 61. Chaykin’s films included WarGames, My Cousin Vinny, & Dances With Wolves, but I have two favorite performances of his: as the bewildered, quietly angry father in What’s Cooking? & as the low-key diner guy in Love and Death on Long Island.