There is a story told in the New York area about a man by the name of Cropsey. In some versions of the tale, he was a perfecetly sane man until a terrible accident left him crippled, while in others he was always a maniac; sometimes he has a knife and sometimes a hook in place of his hand; his precise base of operations is never the same, although it's always close to the place where the teller and the listener are sitting at that very moment. However many details shift about, this is the important part: Cropsey kidnaps and kills kids, and if you go where you aren't supposed to, he'll kill... you... NEXT!

Filmmakers Josuha Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio first heard that story growing up on Staten Island, and like most urban myths told to frighten kids into obedience they moved from fearing Cropsey to finding him a good way to try and freak out their other teenage friends, having parties in the old ruins of a mental hospital where Cropsey was said to live, things like that. Then, in the 1980s, a spate of child abductions occurred on the island, with one in particularly successfully linked to Andre Rand, a former employee of the Willowbrook Institution, a horrid place where mentally underdeveloped children where dumped like so much litter and caused to live in unspeakable filth (this "hospital" was closed down after a series of investigative reports in the 1970s by a local newsman named Geraldo Rivera, who used this case a springboard to national prominence).

Rand fit the profile of the mythic Cropsey to a "T". Homeless, living in the expanse of tunnels under the empty shell of Willowbrook, his alleged crimes ranged from the terrible (killing kids because he had a fundamental break with reality) to the terrible and unspeakably perverse (kidnapping kids for his homeless buddies' sodomy ring, selling kids to Satanists). Convicted for one murder that was committed in 1987, Rand was eventually tried in 2004 for another murder, one from 1981, and this is where Zeman and Brancaccio enter the story. Though both now lived in Manhattan (where they first met, despite knowing people in common and having both come from the small-town environment of State Island), the Rand story bore no small amount of interest to both of them, and so they decided to document the second trial; and thus we finally get to Cropsey, a documentary that is decidedly flawed, in some very important ways, but nevertheless serves to shine a light on some most interesting subjects and asks a question that I at least have never heard asked in a non-fiction context: what are the ramifications of people framing a real-life event in the context of legend? In other words, as Zeman and Brancaccio talked to more and more people, and found that Rand was being viewed, not as a single man who killed four children, but as a sort of embodiment of all the dark things in the world, a physical embodiment of the Cropsey myth, they found themselves wondering more and more, what does that say about us as as society (throughout the film, it is always "us"; once a Staten Islander, always a Staten Islander, and Brancaccio's post-film Q&A confirms that the filmmakers were aware of this quirk)?

The filmmakers don't look to answer that question, contenting themselves simply with the fact that it has been raised, and I am quite uncertain whether that's a problem or not. On the one hand, of course, it would be the height of presumption to try and make bold declarative statements about a culture when one is stuck firmly inside that culture, and given the peculiarities of the Rand trial (according to strict legal precedent, there is unquestionably reasonable doubt going on, yet at the same time it seems absolutely clear that he's guilty of something, and is patently not a good man), it would anyway be difficult to claim that his treatment by the people of Staten Island as a kind of corporeal bogeyman is mere sense or mass hysteria. This is the point where the film starts to fall apart: the central concept, that we are watching a community respond to the literalisation of one of its most cherished urban myths, can't quite stand up against the facts of the matter, that Andre Rand either did or did not murder a little girl in 1981, and the truth of the matter has very little to do with whether or not the case has any similarities to the Cropsey legend. Zeman and Brancaccio aren't really making a film about Rand, of course, and it's their prerogative to sort their material in the way that they find most compelling; but reality is and ever will be more compelling still than a clever thesis.

Still, taking Cropsey for what it is, there's a great deal of interesting filmmaking going on, the further we get from the actual meat and potatoes of the Rand trial. The most interesting parts of the film by far are those which follow the filmmakers on their exploration of the sites of the kidnappings, embracing the fact that the story is as much about how they interpret a news event as it is about the news event itself. Plainly carrying some residual psychic scars from hearing the Cropsey stories in their childhood, Zeman and Brancaccio's journeys into the subterranean nest beneath Willowbrook, obviously terrified out of their minds, is as tense and scary as anything in any horror movie. It's in scenes like these, where the half-remembered stories of youth and the facts of today collide in practice instead of just on paper, that Cropsey really does become a fascinating study of the way that we deal with horrible truths by turning them into stories.

Above all else, the film works as a study of Staten Island itself, and how Staten Islanders behave in times of stress. The results are therefore more analytical than anything else; there is no way to make any kind of ethical judgments in any direction (which may well have been the point). But as an exercise in two grown adults dramatising the place of their childhood, it works rather nicely, and if their purpose was to simply pay tribute to their home and heritage, they couldn't have done a much better job.