Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio grew up in separate parts of Staten Island, but both heard the legend of “Cropsey,” a combination Boogeyman and Hook-Hand who allegedly lived in the woods by an old abandoned hospital and snuck out at night to kidnap and disembowel children. Then in 1987, when Zeman and Brancaccio were teenagers, a mentally handicapped girl was abducted from the Willowbrook area, and during the trial of chief suspect Andre Rand, it came out that children had been going missing from that part of Staten Island since the 1970s, when the old Willowbrook State School for the developmentally disabled was shut down. Zeman and Brancaccio later bonded over their memories of the Rand trial and the Cropsey stories, and when Rand was about to be tried again for another old crime, Zeman (an indie film producer) and Brancaccio (an employee of New York’s social services department) decided to make a documentary about the whole weird story, to try and separate the facts from the campfire tales.
Cropsey continues what’s been a welcome trend this year toward documentaries with strong, surprising narratives. Expertly paced and assembled, the doc uses the second trial of Rand as a window into the culture of Staten Island, which has been a dumping ground for waste—including unwanted human beings, dead and alive—for generations. Zeman and Brancaccio add a personal touch (without overdoing it) as they knock on doors and wander the grounds of Willowbrook, investigating the rumors of a secret society of homeless devil-worshippers who live in a network of tunnels under the surrounding woods. They cobble together old news footage, interviews with locals, and even a few correspondences with Rand, and as they train their camera on old hospital trays in the woods and yellowing newspaper clippings, Zeman and Brancaccio show how the abandoned hangs around to haunt us.
Cropsey’s video quality is lo-fi, and Zeman and Brancaccio over-emphasize their main theme: that Staten Island welcomes scapegoats and conspiracy theorists. But the movie is effectively creepy, and the lack of physical evidence in the Rand case raises disturbing questions about how much presumption and anxiety influences outcomes in the our courts. More notably, Cropsey is compelling as a meditation on how we use stories to explain the inconceivable, and how if no story is handy, we take the available clues and make one up.