CROPSEY (2009) – Documentary Retroview

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Cropsey, The Truth Behind An Urban Legend

Cropsey is an urban legend that haunted Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman while they were growing up in Staten Island, NY. In this documentary, the filmmakers return to their childhood environs to investigate the myth about the elusive boogeyman, wacko and supposed satanist who allegedly lived in the abandoned ruins of the notorious Willowbrook Mental Institution, which he used as a base for abducting and killing local children. Ultimately, the discovery of the body of a missing girl proved the legend to be true.


Opening with a spooky walk in the woods, Cropsey follows filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio as they embark on their investigation of the eponymous urban legend that has been troubling them since they were children growing up in Staten Island, New York. According to the legend, an elusive homeless man nicknamed Cropsey was the creepy boogeyman responsible for local child abductions and murders. He was the subject of campfire stories and whose imagined image terrified children up and down America’s East Coast.

The filmmakers quickly tie the legend to the 1987 disappearance of Jennifer Schweiger, a 13-year old with Down syndrome — and to the eventual arrest, trial and conviction of Andre Rand, a former employee of Staten Island’s infamous Willowbrook Mental Institution. Using archival footage, photos and newspaper clips mixed with interviews of former police detectives who worked the Schweiger case and a slew of other cases of missing children, and with commentaries by local people who worked for years to find the bodies of Jennifer and the others, Zeman and Brancaccio create and investigate the fascinating connection between urban legend and true life cold case crimes.

Cast Of Characters

Frequently on camera, filmmakers Zeman and Brancaccio are the lead characters.

They lead the way into the woods, poke about in spooky recesses of abandonned Willowbrook’s wards and underground tunnels, handle archival photos and news clips, ring doorbells to find witnesses and interview those involved in the crime investigations and trials. They’re super storytellers, on camera and, in voice over narration. Schweiger’s mom appears in archival footage and recent interviews, as does Donna Cutugno, the woman who organized the volunteers who searched for Jennifer, and eventually found her body. We meet the family of Holly Ann Hughes, another girl who disappeared but has yet to be found. Newsman Geraldo Rivera, who broke the scandalous story of Willowbrook’s mistreatment of patients, and other journalists appear in archival footage. The two lead detectives comment. And, Andre Rand, convicted of murdering Jennifer and, more recently, Holly Ann Hughes, appears archival perp walks. But, after extensive correspondence with the filmmakers and agreeing to an on camera interview for the film, he suddenly changed his mind and refused to meet with Zeman and Brancaccio.

Theme and Style

There’s a gripping story behind Cropsey, and Zeman and Brancaccio tell it well. They’re smart to play myth against fact, and to cast themselves as curious, sensible and sometimes scared protagonists in sorting legend from truth. They play historians and cops, but they’re also still the creeped out kids who believed there was a boogeyman waiting for them just around the corner, behind the next tree or under their beds. Their research is sound and their style of presentation is serious, but never pretentious. They take you into chilling and sometimes gruesome environs, but don’t stage scare scenes. They do, however, manipulate your mood a bit with scary music — which, by the way, works. Cropsey is a thriller, something like a true life version of the faux documentary presented in The Blair Witch Trial.

Cropsey isn’t an issue-oriented documentary, but it does provoke consideration of how history translates into myth, and how myth influences history. It’s also a very good commentary about the evolution of New York’s Staten Island and the role the locale has traditionally played in the city’s ethos.

Film Details:

Title: Cropsey
Directors: Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman
Release Date: June 4, 2010 (in New York, with other cities to follow)
Running Time: 84 mins.
Location: New York, Staten Island
Language: English
Company: Antidote Films, Cinema Purgatorio

If You Like This Film, You May Also Like:

The Cove
The End of America
Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired

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