There’s a scene during Cropsey, a documentary that explores the events behind several missing Staten Island kids from 1972-87, where someone holds up a photo of the presumed killer.
“I can show you this picture…
…and tell you this guy murdered five children. And you would say, ‘Yeah, yeah…I can see it. I can see it.’ But then I can show you this same picture…
…and tell you, ‘This guy saved five children from a burning building,’ and you would say, “Yeah, yeah…I can see it. I can see it.’ ”
That pretty much sums up Cropsey in its entirety. It is a documentary that relates events between 1972 and 1987 when five special needs children went missing. To date, none of those bodies have been found…except for the young girl who had vanished most recently. Because the young girl's body was unearthed in the woods not far from suspected Andre Rand's campsite/home, he was charged and remains in prison to this day...but his legacy never left Staten Island. Cropsey dredges up old memories and recollections, and shows you that the horror that took place on this island so many years ago still weighs heavily on so many hearts. But unfortunately, it asks a whole lot of questions and doesn’t really provide any answers.
Who really was Andre Rand?
Could he really be responsible for the kidnapping and murder of five missing children over a period of 15 years?
Was he a Satanist, or was he involved in Satanism groups said to inhabit the island during that time?
Did the prosecution that went after Rand really have anything more than circumstantial evidence and eyewitness testimonies from known alcoholics and drug addicts?
Were the charges against Rand just, or did the jury and surrounding community judge him too harshly based on his manic appearance and behavior?
Sadly, you don’t really find out the answers to any of these questions. The filmmakers – Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio – present multiple theories on what could have happened that caused those children to go missing and never return. Many theories are suggested, but only one of them really receives the bulk of the documentary's focus: that Andre Rand was the true killer, and that he acted alone.
There’s a difference between research and investigation, and it would seem the filmmakers opted to focus on the former. Cropsey is based primarily on what everyone already knew; it’s a Cliffsnotes version of the true story. It presents no new information and no revelations. And while the filmmakers leave “the truth” ambiguous, it seems pretty obvious that Rand is the Cropsey the island is searching for. After all, the first time you see Rand in the documentary, he is being taken into police custody; his eyes are wide and empty, as if there is no soul behind them, and a thick line of drool hangs from mouth. It is an eerie sight, knowing that this man is allegedly human...
Despite its shortcomings, the documentary is not entirely without merit. For those who had never heard of the Staten Island murders, the doc fills you in and provides you with a wealth of background. Parents and friends of the missing kids are interviewed, as well as other Staten Island citizens who lived through the ordeal. Police officers, detectives, lawyers, news reporters—everyone who was around at that time and involved in the investigation are fairly represented.
The most shocking piece of footage from the film comes not from the filmmakers, but Geraldo Rivera’s exposé shot at the island’s Willowbrook Sanitarium. In an effort to show the world the horrid conditions that both the patients and the staff underwent while confined there, Rivera turned his cameras to the suffering, the unhinged, and the insane. This is important to mention, because Rand had been employed at Willowbrook, and it was his interaction with these special needs children that many people believe later fueled his impulse to kill them. He allegedly once said that special-needs kids did not deserve the life they were forced to live, and further, they could potentially pass down their deficiencies to future generations of children. Rivera's exposé was a visualization of what Rand was supposedly thinking: "What a horrid life to have to live...if only someone would do something to end their suffering..."
Why Cropsey for the documentary’s title? Because the name “Cropsey” is synonymous with urban legends—a popular name given to a killer who lurks camp grounds at night, looking to mutilate any camper out of their bunks after lights out. The name was even given to the killer in The Burning, a cheap slasher movie from the 80s most famous for its special effects work from genius Tom Savini (and written by Bob and Harvey Weinstein, of all people). The filmmakers explain in their documentary that before, during, and after the five Staten Island children went missing, the legend of Cropsey remained consistently strong…but unlike other urban legends, this one was real.
While the documentary has good intentions, it only really manages to be superficially entertaining, not thought provoking. At best you will be left with “I wonder who really killed those kids.” But because that’s the question you already had when the documentary began, you’ll be left feeling a little disappointed.
On a technical level the documentary is very well made. The “direction,” insofar as one could utilize within a documentary, is competent. The editing keeps things moving steadily, although the bit where the filmmakers go to the sanitarium at night – and see a pack of people coming towards them in the darkness, only to realize they are thrill-seeking teens – reeks too much of sensationalism. This scene brought nothing to the overall investigation except an empty thrill. Sure, it's a bit eerie the first time you see it, but when you realize it's just kids, and there is no threat, you wonder why it was even included.
Despite everything, Cropsey is worth a watch. With the right frame of mind, it’s a conversation starter, and would satisfy those looking for a dark piece of thrilling true crime. But while Cropsey might be the most prominent examination of Andre Rand to date, it would hardly be considered definitive.