I first saw Cropsey as a virginal Fantastic Fest attendee last September. I knew nothing of the film beyond its basic premise, and was sold primarily on the poster. This tends to happen with me, and the resulting hype I built up for myself for no legitimate reason often leads to disappointment. You ever see Grace? Great poster, nay, amazing poster, and indeed one of the best of the year! Crappy film. But I digress. The poster for Cropsey features an abandoned, broken down brick building shrouded by the gnarled branches of an old forest. Placed above it is the simple tagline "the truth is terrifying," the stark simplicity of which became evident after Cropsey's short 84 minute running time is over.

About a month or two later, I received the opportunity to interview directors Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio about their film when it screened at the Denver Film Festival. While the interview was a success, the recording was not. The old, beat up tape recorder I borrowed failed to adequately capture the interview through the cacophony that filled the room, and the small room we were in did little to drown it out. Despite this little snafu (it was my first interview and thus a huge disappointment for me), the filmmakers were gracious enough to give me the chance to introduce the film during its special engagement run at the Denver Film Center this past weekend.

For the first screening, nine of the eleven curious fans in the audience were those I invited. This quelled my severe stage fright a bit, so while I was disappointed in the meager turnout, I was also slightly grateful. The turnout the following Tuesday, however, was much better, with about twenty-five or so people showing up, none of which knew the answer to the trivia questions I posed for some free posters. Despite it all, it was a great feeling seeing it on the big screen once again, making me both long for Fantastic Fest and rekindle my appreciation for this standout film I saw based solely on a poster.

Before watching Cropsey for the first time, I looked up the story behind the film, but I found little to make me believe this film was about true events. A quick search on Wikipedia, my de facto source for basic information, turned up nothing. This lead me to believe that the film I was about to watch was nothing more than a mockumentary, a cheap attempt at achieving Blair Witch-esque fame.

I was clearly wrong, and after viewing the film, quite happy about it.

Cropsey is, ostensibly, a film that explores the disappearance and suspected murders of several children on Staten Island throughout the 1980s. Growing up on the island, the filmmakers were told the story of Cropsey, a vague urban legend about a man who would prey on children at night. In 1987, the disappearance of a young girl with Down's Syndrome and the eventual discovery of her body lead to the arrest of Andre Rand, a drifter that supposedly spent much of his time living underneath the tunnels of the abandoned Willowbrook Mental Institution. With this the legend of Cropsey became real.

Cropsey holds the distinction of being the first ever "horror documentary." By this I certainly don't mean it's a documentary about horror; many others existed before it, and certainly many more will exist long after. Cropsey is more than that. On its surface it is a documentary about a horrific series of events that for some definitely hit close to home. But beyond this we're given a film about the horrifying reality of urban legends. While the tale of Cropsey was a mere urban legend for the children of Staten Island, the story of Andre Rand made it real for the parents. If you'd like to take a morbid stance on the matter, it's karma in its purest form: you freak your kids out with tales of things that go bump in the night, and eventually those things are going to get them.

Documentaries are above all supposed to be informative; Cropsey does this, but instead branches out by taking the form of a narrative. The events chronicled span approximately two decades, prefaced by the story of Cropsey and the time-honored tradition of legend tripping, a common practice involving the nighttime dalliances of children trying to scare each other with visits to frightening locales. This was explored in the film Candyman, albeit in a much more mature manner, so it's no surprise that Cropsey manages to instill genuine frights in the audience. Making themselves central characters in their story (think a Michael Moore flick without the bloated pretension), the filmmakers take a trip to Willowbrook in the middle of the night, accompanied only by a cameraman. This gives the film a sort of Blair Witch-esque vibe, with the added of bonus of lacking a neurotic, shrill camerawoman shrieking every three seconds and causing motion sickness.

This narrative aspect is indeed the film's strong suit, and throughout the tale unfolding on the screen we're taken on a whirlwind journey through not just the potential motives of a deranged killer, but the minds of those who helped put him in jail. Assuming an objective stance on his role in the disappearance and murder of several children, the filmmakers meet with detectives involved with the case, Rand's defense attorneys, his family members and friends, and, in a bizarre twist, those heavily involved in the disturbing underground Satanic cults of Staten Island and the neighboring boroughs of New York. They have no connection to Rand other than growing up when he supposedly roamed the streets and kidnapped children, and this allows the "horror film" aspect of Cropsey to remain unsullied by ridiculous bias. Their experience with Rand and their journey out to the hospital under the cover of darkness thus remain usullied by bias or skepticism. To this end, we're given a remarkable expose on the role bias and perception plays in the passing of judgment.

Cropsey is an incredibly rich and informative "whodunnit" filled to the brim with social commentary, all while exploring the horrifying reality of popular - and seemingly fictional - motif of urban legends in horror cinema. Its role as both a documentary and horror film instill in the viewer the notion that while Jason, Freddy and the supernatural are frightening in their own right, nothing can compare to reality.
categories Reviews, Horror