I sat down with the indie festival flick Cropsey thinking, "Here we go. Another low-budget horror flick that hopes to wring a few new tricks out of the fake documentary / found footage gimmick." And while I'm generally okay with that (the upcoming The Last Exorcism uses it to fine effect), I've grown just a little bit weary of that device lately. But after only a few minutes of this oddly captivating little film I had to pause the disc and double-check the press notes ... so guess what? Cropsey is not a "faux documentary" horror film at at all! It's actually just a really good documentary film that happens to focus on some rather creepy stuff. How cool.
Turns out that if you grew up on Staten Island during, well, any era, you've heard urban legends of a child-killer called "Cropsey," but filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio believe that this myth may in fact be based on reality. More specifically, that the original "Cropsey" may have been a local asylum employee named Rand, who was ultimately arrested (on rather circumstantial charges) after a dead girl was found near one of his "campgrounds." Rand is up for parole, and the filmmakers use this as a springboard to re-cap the (rather well-documented) case, as well as delve into the idea of truth vs. appearance.
Using archival footage, recent interviews, and on-site research into the former location of Willowbrook Mental Hospital, the film does a fine job of striking an appropriately ominous tone. Equal parts fact, conjecture, and speculation, Cropsey is as much a "true crime" document as it is a compelling look at what urban legends actually are; how circumstance and stereotype may turn a lone weirdo into a local monster; and people are always desperate for a villain when something evil happens down the road. Even if Cropsey is little more than a glorified episode of one of those "Ghost Hunter" shows on cable TV -- I'd argue that it's better than that -- the filmmakers still deliver a fascinating and legitimately unsettling story of made-up myths and real-life monsters.
To their credit, the filmmakers don't pretend to have "discovered" the whole creepy tale, although they do find some fresh insights in the surroundings of Rand's parole hearing. Either way, fact or fiction, it's clear that the intent was to tell an alarming, disturbing tale of fact-based horror. As investigative journalism, Cropsey might not be 60 Minutes, but as a clever combination between truth and fiction, it's a rather impressive little film.