Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Legend of CROPSEY is More Real Than You Might Imagine

Cropsey (2009)
Directors: Joshua Zeman, Barbara Brancaccio
Seen via: Netflix Instant
Rating: 8 / 10

When I was a kid, our town home was located on the edge of a small forest. Neighborhood kids, including myself, would wander among its trees, wade in the small creek, and roam around unsupervised for most of every weekend. There was one thing that would cause us to clear out of the woods without fail though: the echo of a chainsaw ripping through the air from a distance. Most kids in the area knew that these sounds came from the Chainsaw Man - but details about him were blurry. He lived in the woods, wore a mask, and anyone he found too close to his territory would be chopped up into pieces. One day some friends and I wandered a little further than we were allowed to go, and found a dilapidated one-room cabin standing alone in a small clearing. Against our better judgment, we snuck in through a small access door meant for storing firewood. The inside of the cabin was bare except for trash and an empty sleeping bag. It was obvious who lived here, and we ran back home to tell our friends what we'd discovered.

The Chainsaw Man was clearly a myth, but at the time he was very real to us. It never occurred to us that kids being dismembered would have attracted some sort of police attention and most certainly removal of our permission to play in the woods. Urban legends are powerful, and can sometimes take root in truth before being distorted beyond reality. Cropsey begins with a similar legend that originated in Staten Island, one that filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio were exposed to as kids. Much like my Chainsaw Man, Cropsey has ties to the world of horror film (although The Burning is never explicitly mentioned in the movie), and was rumored to be a murderous drifter who lived in the grounds of the defunct Willowbrook mental hospital. He abducted children who were foolish enough to intrude on his lair, or stay out after dark, or not eat their vegetables. The details are blurry, but overlap in one key element. Cropsey killed kids.

Picking apart an old urban legend would be interesting enough, but what makes Cropsey unique is the series of child abductions that occurred in Staten Island concurrent with the rise of the stories. In investigating the roots of Cropsey, Zeman and Brancaccio are drawn inevitably toward the case of Jennifer Schweiger, who went missing near Willowbrook in 1987. Andre Rand was a former custodian at Willowbrook who was squatting on the campus at the time of the murder. With a disturbing criminal history and a demeanor that screamed psychopath, Rand was either the perfect suspect or the perfect scapegoat. If you were looking for a real life Cropsey, there seemed no better fit.

Rand was convicted of the murder of Jennifer Schweiger despite some unusual discrepancies involving the crime scene and questionable testimonies from witnesses. As Rand languished in prison, families of other missing-persons victims in the same area began to wonder whether Rand was also responsible for the disappearances of their children. In Cropsey, we see interviews with a large number of people involved with the investigation. Fact, rumor, and myth beome tangled as we hear from the families of the victims, supposed eyewitnesses, prosecutors, and neighborhood residents. Was Rand simply an insane homeless man who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time? Or did he run a Jim Jones style cult in the tunnels beneath Willowbrook that murdered innocents as part of Satanic rituals? Is there still Satanic activity in Willowbrook today? Does the real Cropsey still run loose?

Cropsey does a remarkable job of examining how something as farfetched as an urban legend serves as a lens through which society views real world events. The filmmakers mostly avoid sensationalism, although they can't resist a nighttime journey into Willowbrook to see what they can uncover. (To be fair, what they find serves to show that the Cropsey legend is still alive and well today.) I can't blame them for wanting to capture the blasted landscape of the Willowbrook campus. It's almost too incredible to pass up, with graffiti covering nearly every square inch of every wall, paint peeling in sheets, and relics from the hospital buried only inches beneath the loam.

The most interesting aspect of the film is its illustration of how legend and memory persist through time to haunt the present. Staten Island is often viewed as a dumping ground, and is home to a landfill so large that it's rumored to be visible from space. The island was home to one of history's largest tuburculosis wards that held patients who were ferried in from Manhattan to wait out their illness. Witherspoon itself was notorious for being a holding pen for the mentally ill, where patients lived in squalor with only minimal attention paid to their care. The modern-day residents of Staten Island seem to carry echoes of this mindset with them today. There's a sense you get in listening to their interviews that however awful the crimes commited here, there was an invetiability to them. If something like this was bound to happen, what better place than Willowbrook? With the dark undercurrents of history that flow beneath the land and the horrors that lie in the recent past, is it any wonder that a fictional monster was created to embody the horror? Fictional monsters, in a way, are far more palatable and more easily comprehended than those that actually live in our midst. Cropsey is a great portrayal of the Moebius strip that connects fiction and reality - how each, twisted, can alter the other.