When I was a kid, I was enamored by creepy urban legends. It didn't really have anything to do with believing in them. I don't think I ever did. Not seriously, anyway. It was always more about the pervasiveness of the stories. There's something in the way they continue to be regurgitated, the way it's insisted that the story really happened to someone who someone you know knows, and the varying details that branch from one version to the next. In one tale, the home-invading stranger is a recently escaped mental patient. In another, a sadistic killer. Who can say with certainty?
Although the chilling documentary Cropsey follows and assembles itself around the crimes of Andre Rand, a homeless man convicted of kidnapping and murdering children in the Staten Island area during the 70's and 80's, the true focus of the film is in urban legends: how they take shape and recycle themselves for future generations.
Andre Rand has been in prison since 1988, serving a 25-to-life sentence for the murder (and alleged rape) of a 12-year-old Down's Syndrome girl, and was up for parole in 2008. Directors Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio thrust themselves into Rand's complicated legacy in 2004 while he was facing trial for another child murder, the second of five missing Staten Island kids—all handicapped one way or another—that Rand was originally suspected to be the kidnapper of. The controversial nature of both trials had to do with the fact that there's never been any real evidence implicating Rand. His conviction relied entirely on eyewitness testimonies, many of whom were highly unreliable. One witness, asked by Zeman outside the court building why she testified against Rand, gave a frightening reply: "He looks guilty."
The furor attached to the victims' apparent vulnerability coupled with the media's quickness to label Rand a monster because of his freaky disposition resulted in Rand being denied the basic tenet of innocent until proven guilty. For over two decades, Rand has maintained his innocence. The film, however, isn't an apologia or a call to arms. It argues for Rand's innocence only by presenting the strangeness that casts the whole affair in doubt.
Cropsey has a personal approach to it that gave it a narrative immediacy absent from a regular serial killer profile one might stumble across A&E or TruTV. Zeman narrates the documentary in first-person as he and his partner try to become acquaintances with Rand, to hear his side of the story. Having grown up on Staten Island themselves, Zeman and Brancaccio are not only familiar with the places and events that connect Rand with the victims, they have also lived with the repercussions of Rand's actions in their communities. The doc moves like a taut suspense thriller, with the duo exchanging cryptic letters and phone calls with Rand, hunting down anyone who'd have any say on the case or the man.
But the picture that emerges is blurry and underlit. The more data they gather on Rand, the weirder the story gets and the more obvious it is that the film isn't really about him at all. When what's supposed to be a tragic murder case involving a visibly disturbed man and a few handicapped children suddenly turns into whispers of an underground network of crazy homeless people and a conspiracy involving a secret Staten Island Satanic cult, it's demonstrable that the stories have overtaken the facts. History becomes legend and criminals become boogeymen.
The title Cropsey comes from a campfire story passed up and down the New York area, mostly among boy scouts, about a mysterious child stalker named Cropsey. The stories differ—I saw the film with a Staten Island native, who told me her own childhood brush with the legend—but the name remains a symbol of terror among children. There's a circular nature to urban legends that makes this documentary fascinating beyond the hard facts of the Andre Rand case.
The film comes to a point in one sequence where Zeman and Brancaccio are exploring an abandoned building near Rand's campsite and stumbled into a group of young teens on their own night-time expedition. Our two documentarians asked the kids if they've heard of Andre Rand. They hadn't, but once told of his crime, some of them sort of recognized the story—at least the premise of it. It's at this point that, were we in those kids' shoes and not, as we have been, watching the history of Rand's case, we might have assumed that Zeman and Brancaccio made it all up.
Or, more appropriately, that they were just retelling an old urban legend. Who's to say they weren't?
"Cropsey" opens June 4, 2010 and is not rated. Documentary. Written and directed by Joshua Zeman. Starring Joshua Zeman, Barbara Brancaccio.