Decades-old murders create chills in the present
“Cropsey ’’ only sounds like a teddy bear that’s come to life. It’s actually a chillingly effective documentary about a series of murders that happened on Staten Island in the late 1970s and early ’80s. The victims were children, nearly all of them mentally ill or retarded. The suspect was homeless. And most of the bodies are still missing.
What begins as a general essay about the urban legend of an ax-wielding boogeyman — a Cropsey — narrows into both an investigation into Andre Rand, the Freddy Krueger of the operation, and the modern history and character of Staten Island, where the movie’s directors, Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio, grew up terrified of the Cropsey myth.
Zeman and Brancaccio interview many of the players in the missing-children cases. They use old local TV news footage, which confirms as real what feels in the opening minutes like a “Blair Witch Project’’ hoax. In part, that’s because Zeman narrates with the grave yet slightly whimsical tone of certain “This American Life’’ segments.
The photographs and footage, including a 1972 mental-institution exposé by a young Geraldo Rivera, become the film’s centerpiece. A woman named Donna Cutugno talks to a reporter about the search party she led to find the only victim whose body eventually materialized. (Cutugno played a version of herself in the missing-child fiasco “Freedomland’’ and continues her search on Staten Island.) Pictures of these dead children stare out at us. An image of Holly Ann Hughes’s estranged parents is especially striking. They forlornly stand apart while holding up a milk carton with the face of their missing daughter.
Modern horror films rarely capture that pit-of-the-stomach feeling the way this movie does. Zeman and Brancaccio deploy their share of horror-movie piano. But it helps that these two were raised in a climate of child-snatching paranoia. They know that it’s what real that scares us: lynch mobs, legal loopholes, a crazy homeless man, talk of satanic cults, curfews, and the very simple fact that there is much that remains unsettled, including the implication of anything called Cropsey. It’s a proper noun — the Hudson River School painter Jasper Francis Cropsey, for instance. But it also suggests “proxy,’’ “patsy,’’ “crackpot,’’ “crock,’’ and “crop circle.’’ So a real Cropsey for Staten Islanders made for a surreal nightmare on their streets.
It’s the scenes from Rivera’s report that are hardest to forget. His cameraman shines a floodlight into the dark spaces of the hospital and finds cadaverous patients wandering the halls and writhing on the floor. It’s shock journalism discovering the ancient hell of Hieronymus Bosch. Those scenes remind you of Rivera’s muckraking skills while making your skin crawl.
“Cropsey’’ fits nicely with Spike Lee’s “Summer of Sam,’’ and David Fincher’s “Zodiac,’’ a pair of more epic, moodier treatments of their killer-on-the-loose atmosphere. The documentary, though, has scarier twists. The directors, for instance, make the unsettling discovery that one of the future victims, with his raccoon eyes and New York Dolls haircut, had been lurking in the crowd during one of the news stories. He seemed ghostly even before he disappeared.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com.