J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Staten Island True Crime: Cropsey

Staten Island is the greenest, least urban borough of New York City. Residents tend to be more conservative and family-oriented than the rest of the City, which is why the borough was shocked by a rash of child abductions in the 1980’s. Staten Islanders had long told cautionary tales about Cropsey, an escaped mental patient at-large in the woods, but when confronted with the case of Andre Rand, the urban legend suddenly became all too real. Staten Islanders Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio examine the folklore and strange factual circumstances surrounding the Rand case in Cropsey (trailer here), which opens Friday in New York.

Many cases of missing children have been linked to Rand, but as the documentary opens, he had only been convicted of the abduction of Jennifer Schweiger. However, with the discovery of new evidence, the Staten Island D.A. filed charges against Rand for an earlier kidnapping. While the trial was presumably quite dramatic, Zeman and Brancaccio’s cameras were barred by the court. Still, even without courtroom footage, the directors had a fair amount of intriguing material to work with, including: cooperation from the original investigating officers, eerie backdrops, unsettling rumors of cult activity, and a classic archetypal boogieman.

The shadow of the notorious Willowbrook Mental Institution, which had been shutdown after its abusive conditions were exposed by an ambitious local muckraker named Geraldo Rivera (easily the film’s most horrifying image), looms over the Rand case and the Cropsey legend. Rand had worked as an orderly at Willowbrook in the late 1960’s. At the time of the abductions, he lived a bizarre existence, camping out in abandoned houses in the wooded Greenbelt near the decaying Willowbrook building. Known as the “Pied Piper,” he operated as a poor man’s Mansion Family cult leader.

Though the filmmakers expend a great deal of fruitless energy trying to get an interview with Rand, he is clearly just toying with them. Frankly, it is just as well. Serial killers are always boring personalities. If anything, it is the mysteries surrounding their cases that are interesting, and Zeman and Brancaccio certainly reveal a bizarre milieu in the “Forgotten Borough.” It seems odd that so much suspected cult activity was afoot in Staten Island, but the wild woods of the Greenbelt were clearly conducive to strange nocturnal activity.

While there are some entertaining chills in Cropsey, it is ultimately a tragic film. After all, many of Rand’s presumed victims have yet to be found, and the convicted predator still refuses to cooperate in their recovery. He is simply an evil man, whom the filmmaker wisely refrain from glamorizing. Though perhaps better suited to Court TV or the History Channel, Cropsey certainly holds viewing interest, documenting some intriguing New York City history from the perspective of its most unfairly overlooked and maligned borough. After screening at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival and resurfacing for a special showing at the 92 Y Tribeca, the Staten Island doc finally makes it out of the Tribeca neighborhood, opening its theatrical run at the IFC Center in the West Village this Friday (6/4).

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