Looking and sounding like every ghost-hunting reality series to ever air on the Discovery Channel, the opening moments of Cropsey still manage to set the horror hook. Some stunningly eerie footage of an abandoned insane asylum is accompanied by ominous narration about the legend of Cropsey, a possibly hook-handed crazy man who roamed the dark tunnels of Willowbrook mental institution on Staten Island, an urban legend that documentary filmmakers Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman amp up to unseemly proportions. See, Cropsey isn’t about Cropsey. Not really. After its intriguingly horror-centric, Blair-Witch-ified opening moments, Cropsey settles into the sort of small-town crime expose usually associated with Friday night eps of Dateline or 20/20.
The film centers primarily around the life and crimes of Andre Rand, a drifter, sex offender, and Willowbrook janitor (admittedly, a damning trifecta), who was suspected of abducting and murdering several retarded kids on Staten Island back in the 80s. In 1987, he was charged with kidnapping and murdering Jennifer Schweiger, a 12-year-old girl with Downs’ Syndrome, and burying her body on the Willowbrook property. With prosecutors lacking the evidence to lock-in the murder charge, Rand was convicted of the kidnapping and served 12 years, only to find himself accused of another kidnapping in 2002. This time it was 7-year-old Holy Ann Hughes, one of a handful of girls that Staten Island police suspect Rand may have abducted and murdered over the years. But it’s hard to prove a murder without bodies. And Jennifer Schweiger’s body was the only one the police ever managed to find. Is this the Staten Island boogeyman that local children always feared?
The filmmakers pepper their (increasingly) speculative narration and spooky asylum footage with strongly-worded interview segments, but…not all interviews are created equal. Strangely, conversations with search volunteers and mere spectators are given the same weight as interviews with the cops and lawyers involved with the cases. Some of those interviewed are talking with authority and knowledge, some are just talking out of their respective asses, and the filmmakers don’t bother to differentiate between the two.
If one intends to truly enjoy Cropsey, it’s important to keep things in perspective. This a documentary that is meant to entertain, not to inform. It certainly ain’t journalism. If you want to learn about Andre Rand and his legacy as a possible serial killer, read the New York Times. But if you’re simply in the mood for an unresolved true-crime story diluted with a bunch of extraneous nonsense, Cropsey is the way to go.