Every town has its legend, every child has heard stories of monsters living in their own back yards, of hidden deviance and violence lying just below the surface of polite society. They're stories we all hear but all ignore, stories we put down to superstition and ignorance and the simple urge to try and frighten one another. But as Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio's Cropsey points out, sometimes the stories are true.
Built around a detailed examination of the case of Andre Rand - a transient convicted of kidnapping multiple children in 1980s Staten Island and believed to have been connected to many more - Cropsey is a chilling study in what can happen when society is confronted with a monster in their own back yard. Or at least the possibility of one. For as the film points out, the case against Rand was circumstantial at best but it was the belief in his guilt that drove locals to extremes.
When Staten Island's population exploded in the late sixties it meant the arrival of tens of thousands of families on to land previously occupied only by a mental hospital, TB ward, garbage dump and little else. And in the final years of operation for the mental hospital, Rand was one of the attendants, working with mentally disabled people who had essentially been abandoned and warehoused in appalling conditions, conditions that led to a major news expose by a young Geraldo Rivera and the eventual shut down of the facility. And, though he worked there, from the sounds of things Rand was not so far away from being a patient himself, the closure leaving him unemployed and living in a string of makeshift campsites around the outside of the grounds.
And here's where things get weird. The closed compound was the sort of place seemingly created to trigger urban legends, a disused place with a history of abuse and a network of tunnels underneath. The sort of place where teens would come to scare one another, there were rumors of Satanic meetings and black masses on the grounds. It was all put down as rumor until the first child disappeared.
Searches ensued, searches that would eventually turn up the body buried just yards from one of Rand's camp sites, a discovery that led police to a more detailed examination of the man's life and the linking of several previous disappearances ...
As Zeman and Brancaccio dig deeper into the case it is not so much the answers that become compelling but the lack of them, the underlying questions. This is a film not so much about what is true - because nobody really knows - but about what might be true, a film about the power of myth within a community. Is Rand truly a monster? He may very well be - the disappearances did, after all, stop once he was arrested - but the film is more interested in the questions that lie underneath, questions of how it is that every community, every society, has a sort of parallel, underground history - a darkness that lies beneath the thin veneer of civility that we try our best to simply ignore in hopes that it will just go away. Compelling, troubling stuff, Cropsey is a fascinating foray into this hidden territories and very highly recommended.
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