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Directors Seek to Demystify Urban Legend in ‘Cropsey’

6 May, 2011 By: Ashley Ratcliff


Cropsey was a deranged mental hospital escapee who lived in the deserted Willowbrook Mental Institution on Staten Island, New York. He had a hook for a hand (or depending on who you talked to, carried a bloody ax) and snatched children off the streets at night.

In their youth Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio shrugged off the urban legend as a made-up story told to spook kids from trespassing on the grounds. But when five Staten Island children disappeared in the 1980s, some began to believe there was truth to the Cropsey myth. And with a peculiar man, Andre Rand, found guilty in the disappearance of 12-year-old Jennifer Schweiger, who went missing in 1987, the community found itself at the center of a real-life horror story.

Breaking Glass Pictures on May 10 releases on DVD ($19.99) the documentary Cropsey, the work of co-directors Zeman and Brancaccio who, decades later, felt a lack of closure about the missing children from their hometown.

“We decided to go back to Staten Island to take a walk through the trails and all the areas we reminisced about,” Zeman said. “We came upon this old, abandoned playground that was part of the Willowbrook playground and … it was like we were stepping back into time. It was very creepy and very weird. That gave us the idea that we can visually tell this story about something that happened in the past."

Shortly thereafter, the Staten Island district attorney re-indicted Rand on suspicion of involvement in the disappearance of another young girl, Holly Ann Hughes, some 22 years later. Rand was brought from prison back to the borough to stand trial.

“We realized now we had the impetus for 'Why now?’” Zeman said.

“It was so shocking from an urban politics and psychological standpoint that the island that we had grown up in, this very idyllic hometown, ended up [having] a lot of dark stuff going on underneath that we had no idea about,” he added.

The filmmakers picked up a camera in February 2001 and began to unlock the enigmas behind the vanishings and the man who was believed to be responsible for the heinous acts.

“It was all pretty unsettling, and it was all pretty shocking to us at different times," Zeman said. “Some [of it] was shocking for … how close it was to your typical Silence of the Lamb story.”

Zeman and Brancaccio communicated through letters with Rand, but the convicted child murder refused to participate in an on-camera interview. The subject-storyteller relationship became very strange during the process, Zeman said.

“Our ideas about him changed quite a bit during the course of the filming, and our opinions about whether he did it changed. … That was very interesting for us,” he said. “[Rand] was just always an elusive, mysterious character. … [We] were trying to demystify this kind of boogeyman that we had built up, but it became very difficult because he was still so elusive.”

After Cropsey was released, Rand expressed some discontentment to Zeman and Brancaccio about how the trial was portrayed.

However, a small victory for the co-directors is that the documentary has reopened the discussion about the missing children’s whereabouts.

“The question is, What’s going to happen next? You never know,” Zeman said. “That’s the hope that you have to keep.”

Included in the bonus material are 10 deleted scenes that provide additional perspectives about the Cropsey legend’s origins and mistakes made during the Rand investigation, as well as clips of the filmmakers searching the abandoned Willowbrook institution for evidence.

“There’s just a ton of footage that we wished we could have put in but for whatever reason, mostly time issues, we couldn’t. I look forward to people getting the DVD so they can check [them] out,” Zeman said, adding that they shot 350 hours of footage.

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