JULY 10, 2010
With even the likes of HMAD reader Roger Ebert calling Cropsey a "horror documentary", I figured making it my movie for the day was a safe bet. Also, looking back on my other documentary offerings, they've all been ABOUT horror movies, either their production or general impact, so I figured it would be nice to expand my intake a bit, as long as it had already been dubbed "horror" by my peers. After all, I love both documentaries and true crime stories, so this is something I would have watched anyway.
And as it turns out, it's the people who watched it AS a horror movie, instead of a documentary, that really liked it. As a horror movie, it's pretty successful - its got a ominous score, a creepy villain with a cool name, and even a late night trek through the woods that results in a jump scare. But it also leaves too many things up to interpretation, which is OK for a horror movie, but as a documentary, it makes the film seem aimless.
To be fair, the man convicted of kidnapping (not the murders) of two of the five girls the movie focuses on, Andre Rand, has never confessed to any wrongdoing, nor is there much beyond hardly inconclusive evidence pointing to his guilt. One girl's remains were found 150 yards from a makeshift campsite he lived in, but the movie also points out he had several "homes". And then there are some eyewitness accounts that saw him with her, but we also meet several attention seeking types who probably enjoyed being up on the stand, pointing fingers. So unlike something like Rough Cut, the film doesn't wrap up the "mystery"; by the end of the doc I felt like I knew relatively little more about the case than I did from reading the plot synopsis.
But that isn't really the problem. Certainly a documentary doesn't need to have an open and shut conclusion. Look at Paradise Lost - to this day we don't know who killed those kids, but the movie (more so its sequel) makes it pretty clear that it probably wasn't the "West Memphis Three". Cropsey's filmmakers never successfully plant a seed of doubt that the guy is guilty, even though about a third of the film seems to be about offering other explanations/suspects for what happened to the girls.
They also spend a good chunk of time offering up a possible motive for Rand, that he was trying to cleanse the world of disabled children, after seeing what they went through at the Willowbrook hospital that employed him for a brief time, where disabled children (i.e. those with Downs syndrome and other forms of mental retardation) were left lying around in their own filth. But even this is a bit sloppy, because the victim they spend the most time discussing (and the one he is on trial for the kidnapping of in the film’s “present day” scenes) is not disabled in any way, which they don’t even point out. In Paradise Lost, the filmmakers would at least pose the obvious questions for the audience (i.e. if Damien and the others killed the children in the dark woods, how did they make such careful, practically surgical cuts on the boys, and how did they manage to clean everything up?).
One could argue that they weren’t trying to solve the mystery or prove Rand’s guilt or innocence, and that may very well be true. But if so, why bother tracking down his sister, or a guy he used to live with, or anyone else that wasn’t a potential witness to the crimes? It seems at times that they want to believe that the guy was railroaded, but if so they don’t really press hard enough. There’s a difference between having a bias and having a point. Throughout the film I kept wondering what exactly they were trying to accomplish here. I know they were sort of derailed by a few unfortunate circumstances (including Rand deciding at the last minute not to give them the interview he promised), but I fail to see why they thought piling up on conspiracy theories and tangential anecdotes would make up for it.
I mean, throughout the film Rand is accused of necrophilia, kidnapping without killing, working with a satanic cult, child molestation, etc. And yet another guy claims that Rand is being framed. Toss in the victims’ families and the horrible conditions of Willowbrook, and some half-baked attempts at trying to draw the parallels between an urban legend and a real crime, and the film starts to resemble a highlight reel of a multi-part documentary about Staten Island’s dirty secrets. Worse, the filmmakers are in the movie quite a bit, and even indulge in a little late night trip to the woods that more than slightly resembles Blair Witch Project (doesn’t help that the filmmaker's name is Josh). It’s a “jack of all trades, master of none” approach to documentary filmmaking (or at least, editing). I mean, I often want to read a book about a subject of a documentary, but only because I want to learn more. In this case, I want to read a book about it so I can learn SOMETHING. Like, what are the circumstances revolving the other three children that Rand has been linked to (he’s only been tried on kidnapping for two of the girls)? Where are all of the other Willowbrook residents who supposedly live in the abandoned, quite condemned hospital grounds? Why does his sister think he's manipulating them? Is the name Cropsey associated with the film because the kidnapping occurred in 1981, the same year as The Burning? If it happened in 1982, would the movie be called The Bleeder?
On the plus side, it’s never boring, and while they don’t quite assemble it all in a satisfactory way, the filmmakers clearly put a lot of effort into the film, digging up a variety of friends and family on both sides of the story, and visiting town halls and the like to find more information about the area, the hospital, etc. And for whatever reason, there IS no book on the subject to the best of my knowledge (i.e. nothing turned up on Amazon), so even though its spotty, it’s actually the most detailed account of these crimes that exists for public consumption. But I guess that’s what happens when an old weirdo is convicted of a crime instead of a handsome guy in his 30s or a group of teenagers - there’s nothing to sensationalize (for good or bad). But I’m also sure it’s due to the fact that Rand seems to be unwilling to cooperate with ANYONE, which would make any attempts to “tell the whole story” vastly incomplete.
At any rate, it’s a unique take on the true crime documentary, and I hope the film’s release inspires some to take a closer look at the case and perhaps solve some of its aspects (such as the remains of the missing children - only the one girl was ever found) for the families’ sake. I just wish that the film could have been a stronger piece of work on its own.
What say you?