Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman's 2009 documentary Cropsey played a few theaters and festival dates before being made available on various streaming services and now, two years later, it finds a home on DVD where it will hopefully find a wider audience. For those unfamiliar with the story, the documentary covers the strange events surrounding the cast of one Andre Rand and how he came to represent the physical manifestation of the boogeyman to many Staten Island kids in the early eighties.
The idea of Cropsey isn't all that different from that of any other folk character made up to keep kids from going into places they shouldn't, and Staten Island is full of them, be they the abandoned Farm Colony buildings in the greenbelt area or the old Sea View mental hospital that lies across the street. There are empty hospitals, schools, and industrial buildings all across New York City's forgotten fifth borough and it's easy to understand why parents might want to scare their kids out of wanting to hang out in places like that. Interesting then that those same abandoned buildings would play such a large part in the case - but let's rewind a bit here. Andre Rand was a caretaker at the Willowbrook Mental Institution, a hospital that has since been closed down and turned into part of the college campus grounds. During its peak, it was packed full of patients all suffering from various degrees of problems and the conditions were horrible. Geraldo Rivera did a televised expose on the conditions there and brought it to national attention, and when New York State started doing away with the mental institutions, it was closed down. That said, Rand may have been out of a job but he was not about to give up on the place. Instead, he reportedly lived in the woods next door to the now abandoned institutional buildings and it was here that evidence that linked him to some missing children in the area was found.
The local media built Rand up as a boogeyman, showing a picture of him being lead out of a building in chains with drool running down his unshaven face - and there can be little doubt that Rand is an odd man who may not be all right in the head. With that said, Cropsey sheds some light on the details of the case, not all of which completely implicate that Rand was entirely responsible for all that happened.
Through interviews with the parents of some of the children who went missing, people who knew Rand and people who remember Rand, cops who worked on the case and activists who still to this day try to come the woods of the island for clues, Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman have crafted a thoroughly fascinating documentary. While the film lets us witness firsthand how spooky some of the buildings are when the pair make their way through the fence and into the aforementioned Farm Colony structures (abandoned for decades and now creepy hulking shells of brick and mortar), we're educated on the details not only of the crimes Rand is accused of committing but of the details of his trial, his incarceration, and his case in general. To go into a whole lot of detail and minutia on those facts would spoil the film but this is a picture that wisely asks as many questions as it answers.
Like Michael Moore or Werner Herzog before him, Brancaccio and Zeman appear on camera throughout and guide us through the story, but this is more than just footage of the two wandering around and asking questions. Loads or archival TV news clips and newspaper reports are used as are photographs from various records and eye witness accounts to paint as broad and thorough a picture of this bizarre true crime case as possible. The film isn't flawless - there are times where the footage is edited in such a way that certain buildings are made to look like Willowbrook, which they are not, and the fact that it was made on a fairly modest budget means that there are a few spots where it's not quite as polished as it could be, but none of these hurt the film in the overall picture. What we wind up with is a thoroughly fascinating documentary that sheds some light on a case that really isn't very well known outside of Staten Island that is both chilling and informative.
NOTE: This review is based on a test disc that may or may not represent finished retail product. If proper finished product is made available, this review will be updated then.
Cropsey is presented in 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen. The image, shot on video and pulling from different archival sources, is generally clean when we're dealing with the newly shot footage but tends to vary wildly when using archival clips. Compression artifacts are frequently spotted throughout the movie.
The only audio option for the feature is an English language Dolby Digital 5.1 track and it is of decent quality even if the rear channels are really only used for the score. Dialogue is easy enough to understand and both the narrated sequences and live action sequences sound just fine. No alternate language options or subtitles are offered here.
The best extra on the disc is a commentary track from writer/director team Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman. Here the pair discusses what lead to their interest in the case, how they went about researching it, details on some of the abandoned buildings that they shot in, what it was like corresponding with Rand and more. It's a fairly insightful track that offers up some good information on the film. They also give a lot of credit to Geraldo for exposing the underside of what was happening in the facility and how he brought that to national attention.
Aside from that, there are also a dozen or so deleted scenes, most of which are worth watching. While some were cut for pacing reasons, others were cut for completely different reasons and wind up shedding light on a few different aspects of the case not covered in the feature - as such, this is more than just filler, but rather solid content instead. A handful of trailers and promo spots round out the extras alongside animated menus and chapter selection.
It's hard to recommend and unfinished disc, but Cropsey is interesting enough as are the extras on this test disc that this looks to be a feature worth seeing. True crime fans and those with an interesting in oddball historical documentaries will appreciate what the filmmakers have done here, and so this is one worth checking out for those reasons.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.