Directed by: Barbara Brancaccio, Joshua Zeman Cropsey is a documentary about that one stereotypical scary story everybody tells around the campfire, the one about the guy with a hook for a hand who hangs out in the woods…or lives on your street…or in the abandoned warehouse just down the block. The ones that are obviously just stories. But are they based on some semblance of fact?
In the early to mid-80s, on Staten Island, there was a string of children disappearances, most of which involved the mentally handicapped. The documentary focuses primarily on the disappearance of Jennifer Schweiger, a young girl with down syndrome who disappeared in July of 1987. Shortly thereafter, Andre Rand was arrested in relation to the crime due to eyewitness accounts putting him with the young girl earlier in the day.
Although Rand is at the center of the documentary, the filmmakers also delve deeply in to the history of Willowbrook, a state school for the mentally handicapped found on Staten Island. In 1972 it was the focal point of an expose reported by a young Geraldo Rivera, trying to shed light on the unsuitable conditions therein. Andre Rand was an orderly at the school, and after it shut its doors in the early 80s it was believed Rand still lived on the grounds in makeshift hovels, along with many of the misplaced patients who had nowhere to go when the building closed.
I’m not completely sure what the filmmakers initially set out to do. As the film begins it feels more like any news piece run on a program like 48 Hours or Dateline. Were they really thinking they were going to uncover something new or interesting in a case over 20 years old? When the documentary was being filmed, Rand was getting ready to stand trial for the disappearance of another girl who had gone missing years earlier on the island. Were they just rehashing facts, making a film based on a subject sure to have renewed interest given the circumstances?
I don’t know if it was what they had planned all along or if, at some point, they decided just rehashing the facts wasn’t going to be interesting enough to warrant a feature-film documentary, but the piece eventually starts to subtly sway away from whether Rand committed the crimes or not to an in depth look at the preconceived notions everybody, even the authorities, bring with them in to a case of this magnitude.
Some of the interviewees, including detectives who worked on the case, say they were sure Rand was part of a satanic cult. Some say he was the ringleader of a group of former patients still living on the grounds who kidnapped the children for the sake of abusing them. Some say he was a necrophile. Some say a gopher for something larger and more deviant. During the trial, eye-witnesses who hadn’t spoken in over twenty years pop out of nowhere to now claim they had seen something pertaining to the case. Despite no physical evidence, families of many of the victims insist Rand is the culprit, hoping for closure to a mentally destructive portion of their past.
What begins as a film feeling like it wants to shed light on to the tired old formula of whether the perpetrator did or did not commit the murders, turns in to a look at how urban legends are built, and how rumors and different points of view often times distort the image of people we know nothing about.
There are clips of Rivera’s expose of Willowbrook, and they are haunting. The areas are dark and windowless, the children are moaning and rocking, most naked, some bent in unnatural contortions. Rivera reports in most building there may be one attendant for upwards of 50 mentally handicapped children, and all areas smelled of disease and death. I shudder to think about the number of patients who died on the premises and were simply swept under the rug. In what I assume was the culminating soliloquy of his piece, Rivera sums it up perfectly, “What we found and documented here is a disgrace to all of us. This place isn’t a school it’s a dark corner where we throw children who aren’t pretty to look at, it’s the big town’s leper colony.”
There’s a portion of the film where Rand decries that everybody at Willowbrook, including the staff, were victims. After seeing the conditions in the hospital, I can’t believe anybody who worked there didn’t come away mentally scarred. Could working in those conditions day in and day out have caused psychological damage so deep to Rand he felt it was his duty to “save” the children from parents who he didn’t believe wanted them? It makes more sense than any of the other theories posited. But, then, maybe it’s the filmmakers, adeptly making me feel a certain way with leading interviews and subtle inferences. Who’s to say?
Written by Ryan Venson