Every place has a mythical, mysterious creepy dude who lives in some secluded spot and appears only to snatch up and harm children. Such urban legends are made more "real" with pertinent local details. For kids growing up on New York City's Staten Island in the 1970s and '80s, the boogeyman was called "Cropsey," and he supposedly lived, naturally enough, on the grounds of Willowbrook, a sprawling wooded estate. Just as the island was a dumping ground for the city's physical refuse (and, reputedly, mob victims), the state-run Willowbrook warehoused the area's mentally ill children (infamously depicted in a 1972 TV-news exposé by a young Geraldo Rivera).
Then, in the summer of 1987, several children did disappear from the area. One body was eventually recovered -- buried at Willowbrook -- and a suspect, Andre Rand, was arrested. Rand was a homeless loner, who had formerly worked at the institution and lived in its woods.
For filmmakers Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman -- both of whom grew up on Staten Island during that time -- the case of Cropsey and Rand was fascinating: Was Rand a real-life child-snatching monster? Or, much like kids use stories to process fears, was the creepy-looking Rand simply a convenient cover for something even more unthinkable, like an upstanding citizen committing atrocities?
The documentary mulls over such queries, spurred in part by a recent trial of Rand. The filmmakers track down many of those involved in the 1987 case -- from concerned neighbors and witnesses to cops and reporters, most of whom simply recount old history.
At times, it's a fascinating work, unsettling and also, ultimately, predictable: When children are murdered, reactions from the community, media and even police can be more emotional than logical. Rand was accused of being part of a satanic cult -- an unproven assertion that I wished the film had pressed harder on. (The "satanic panic" of the late 1980s is a shameful chapter in American justice. It was fueled in part by – wait for it – another Geraldo Rivera TV "exposé.")
But nightmares -- even ones unfolding in reality -- are slippery to pin down. Cropsey has elements of an investigative work, but the filmmakers don't uncover anything about the crimes. Instead, they fall back on filler, such as shot-at-night-for-maximum-creepiness strolls through Willowbrook. The film works best as a mildly thoughtful document about how we react to something as truly horrifying as a serial killer of children. There may be some catharsis; there may be justice (or injustice) -- but the real origins of such horrors will remain unknowable. Cue the next Cropsey. Fri., Aug. 27, through Tue., Aug. 31. Melwood