'Cropsey,' a haunting chiller


4.5 stars (NR)

Cropsey explores the most terrifying kind of urban legend - one which has come true. In this deeply unsettling documentary, filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio put a decades-old campfire story in a rich and unsettling context, tapping into our current fears.

The film follows the legend of Cropsey, an escaped mental patient who lived in the abandoned Willowbrook Mental Institution of Staten Island, coming out at night to snatch children off the streets.

Growing up on Staten Island, directors Zeman and Brancaccio often heard this terrifying tale. Then, in the summer of 1987, it unfortunately proved true. A 13-year-old girl with Down syndrome, named Jennifer Schweiger, disappeared from their community.

The real-life Cropsey behind her kidnapping was a man named Andre Rand, a former employee of the notorious Willowbrook Mental Institution - a dumping ground for mentally handicapped children.

As the filmmakers astutely show, Staten Island was a dumping ground itself. At the time, it harbored the largest landfill in the world as well as several abusive hospitals. Therefore, Rand was a product of his environment, just another garbage man taking out the trash so to speak.

In addition to Jennifer Schweiger, Rand was linked to the disappearance - and possible murder - of four other mentally challenged children. Although he was convicted, there was never any hard evidence against him, it was all circumstantial. But you can tell from looking at him that he is the killer. He has the vacant, thousand-mile stare of a monster.

The ambiguity surrounding Rand's crimes is the deep chill at the center of the film. Did he really commit them? Did someone else help him kill? The lack of soothing closure is brilliantly maddening. Zeman and Brancaccio's obsession with reaching a solid resolution will become your own. The film's eerie revelation is that the truth is a range of possibilities, as in an urban legend.

It is fitting for this ambiguous film to be released in this age of uncertainty, in which everything from the Iraq War to the rise in CO2 has no end in sight. Therefore, much like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre did during the Vietnam era, Cropsey reflects our nation's current fearful state. The enemies of this post-9/11 world are omnipresent, lurking in the shadows - and our subconscious - like the legendary Cropsey himself.

Watching this film is similar to being trapped in a mesmerizing nightmare. For 84 breathless minutes, it never lets you out of its grip. Oddly enough, it has a sense of fun about itself at the same time. You can catch Zeman hiding a smile as he tells this story, spinning it like a vintage campfire yarn. His smile is infectious. After all, no matter how disturbing the story, we must admit that we all take a little joy in creepy thrills. We like when the hair on our neck stands up.

Cropsey is playing for a limited time at the Georgetown 14 Cinemas (3898 Lafayette Rd.). It will play through Thursday, July 22. Do not miss this truly haunting chiller. If you do happen to miss it, don't worry, it is now available on Video-On-Demand until August 12th for major operators including Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox, and Brighthouse.