"Growing up on Staten Island, Barbara and I had often heard the legend of Cropsey."
This disembodied voice belongs to Joshua Zeman, who co-directs alongside long-time friend Barbara Brancaccio. He narrates as the camera pans slowly across abandoned local buildings littered with graffiti, telling of how when they were growing up, kids would speak of Cropsey as an escaped lunatic who lived in tunnels beneath the nearby mental institution.
He goes on to tell of how the myth of Cropsey was used by parents to keep their children from playing near the derelict buildings on the edge of town. Basically, if you strayed too far, Cropsey would get you. Newsreel footage reporting missing kids locally at the time reinforced this belief.
Zeman admits to having written Cropsey off as nothing more than an urban legend. "But all that changed," he drawls, "the summer Jennifer disappeared. That was the summer that the kids from Staten Island discovered their urban legend ... was real".
This sombre documentary continues from there, as Zeman and Brancaccio's handheld camera takes to the streets of Staten Island and interviews various residents. First, they get a taste of what the Island is all about - a dumping ground for landfill where the mob would also dispose of bodies, according to some; a place of isolation and despair to others. "Another world", as one young passer-by puts it.
Then they begin to dig deeper into the dark history that fuelled their nightmares as children. The legend of the child kidnapper and killer, Cropsey. A modern-bay boogeyman who carried with him a knife, an axe or possibly even a hook - depending on who's version of the tale we're listening to.
Our hosts take us to a forest area in the centre of Staten Island known as the Greenbelt. Zeman leads us to a disused tuberculosis hospital there where, as a child, he believed Cropsey was hiding out. Even to this day, in broad daylight, the place gives off a forbidding aura. Local researcher Dorothy D'Eletto reveals how a school for the mentally ill was later built as an attachment to the hospital.
Archive television footage from 1972 illustrates how the school courted scandal when a young reporter exposed its appalling conditions. The footage is genuinely upsetting, showing young children left to fester naked in puddles of their own faeces. The young reporter, incidentally, was Geraldo Rivera ...
Despite the national outrage Geraldo's report caused, Zeman tells of how it took a further decade for the authorities to close the place down. But, we learn, the children were no more safe ... as the disappearance of 12-year-old Downs' syndrome sufferer Jennifer Schweiger proved on July 9th, 1987. This, we see from further archive news footage, provoked a mass search of the Island that all residents took part in.
None were more enthusiastic about the search than neighbour Donna Cutugno, who founded the "Friends Of Jennifer" campaign and searched tirelessly for the little girl. Looking back on that terrible time, she tells of how even she felt haunted when searching the empty school for signs of life. It seems that even she paid heed to the tales of Cropsey.
The search resulted in the arrest of 43-year-old transient Andre Rand, who was discovered camping in the forest near to the school. He denied all charges and there was no physical evidence attaching him to Jennifer, but a previous conviction for child sex offences and a sighting of Jennifer with "a middle-aged man" were enough for the local police to haul him in for questioning.
Once Jennifer's corpse was discovered by Donna's helpers in a shallow grave near Rand's camp, the residents were left baying for his blood. But without evidence to support the police's belief that he killed Jennifer, the court could only convict him of her kidnapping. At least the case prompted the local police to re-open cases looking into four more cases of local children who went missing, and whose bodies have never been found.
The film then shifts forward 17 years as the local authorities see fit to put Rand back on trial for the kidnap of one of these missing kids, Holly Ann Hughes. It's an exercise in assuring justice for the family, and no-one seems too concerned with the fact that there's nothing to connect Rand to her disappearance. And so, the trial begins - as Zeman attempts to get Rand to agree to communicate with him ...
Zeman and Brancaccio do a good job of tracking down a great deal of players, from parents and relatives, through locals of present and latter days, and even newscasters from the eras when these stories first broke. The most absorbing contributions come courtesy of Rand's increasingly tormented written communications. The results are fascinating, often disturbing and sometimes heartbreaking in their frankness. A wealth of archive materials - from TV footage to library records and newspapers cuttings - adds to the comprehensive feel of this paradoxically intimate documentary.
Filmed and edited in an appropriately straight-forward manner, CROPSEY is grim but never explicit, and satisfyingly reserved in its judgements: Zeman and Brancaccio simply document the anger of a community, the obsession of Donna's continued search for the missing children etc - and let the viewer decide just how guilty Rand may or may not be.
CROPSEY is presented in its original aspect ratio and is given a good 16x9 representation here. Colours are strong and images are sharp in a decent transfer of the digital origins.
English 2.0 audio is clear, clean and consistent throughout.
The disc from Vicious Circle Films' Breaking Glass roster is Region 1 encoded. It opens with a static main menu page. From there, a static scene-selection menu allows access to the film via 22 chapters.
Extras on the DVD begin with four teaser trailers and the original 2-minute festival trailer for the film.
We also get a deleted scene which runs for 1 minute and sees the filmmakers raking around ruins that were rumoured to have been a haunting ground for devil worshippers.
The press release that accompanied this screener disc suggested that the DVD also includes 30 minutes of previously unseen material. I can only assume these are to be found in the actual film (running time: 84 minutes) as they're nowhere else on the disc.
A chilling film that says more about ineffectual authorities and a bizarre legal system than it does about ghosts and madmen, CROPSEY is unsettling and raw. It comes recommended on this decent disc from Vicious Circle Films.
By Stuart Willis
|Released by Vicious Circle Films/Breaking Glass Pictures|
|Region 1 - NTSC|
|see main review|