A Real Life Staten Island Blair Witch

06/02/2010 4:00 AM |

Directed by Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio

Conspicuously made on the cheap, Cropsey looks ugly. But, unlike too many other DV docs, this one compensates for its aesthetic shortcomings—here, with lurid setting and subject matter. It investigates the disappearances of a handful of developmentally disabled children in the 1980s, thinking the answer lies in the backwoods of a backwoods: if it’s hard enough to believe you’re within New York City limits even when standing in Staten Island’s busiest commercial districts, it’s near impossible from within the strip of forest [http://www.sigreenbelt.org/] that cuts through the outermost outerborough’s middle. There lie the crumbling, graffito’d wards of an abandoned mental hospital, which the filmmakers believe hold the key, evidentially but also spiritually, to solving the movie’s mysteries.

That former hospital is Willowbrook, once made infamous by a horrifying Geraldo Rivera expose: mentally handicapped children wallowed there in filth and nakedness until it was shuttered in 1987. The institution, both as it is and was, forms the movie’s emotional, psychological, metaphysical and historical centers. At once, it’s a surreal horror movie location moved to the real world—with former patients camping in underground tunnels, accused of practicing necrophilia and Satanic rituals!!—but also a looming force in the community’s conscience. Are the missing children cosmic punishments for The Sins of Willowbrook? Did its dehumanizing treatment of retarded children influence a former caretaker there, the convicted suspect in some of the cases, in his views on how special needs children should be treated?

Named after Eastern-seaboard shorthand for kiddie-killer—and not, say, an actual suspect or the eponymous Brooklyn avenue—Cropsey should fascinate New Yorkers: it’s a knotty, rife-with-colorful-natives portrait of Staten Island, our most misunderstood county, here depicted as home to a homegrown Blair Witch, and also as a municipal dumping ground, whether for unwanted curbside trash or challenged children. But its strength stems from its intelligent exploration of less localized themes. It touches on how facts become folklore, how a community gangs up on a patsy (“Staten Islanders like to find easy scapegoats,” one interviewee says), the false sense of safety in suburbia, how documentarians can be exploited by their subject, and the nature of urban legends: how they make no pretension to definitive fact, but instead offer a range of possible truths. It’s from that ambiguity that they derive their power, the film suggests. And it’s from where the open-ended Cropsey gets its own, too. By the final reel, we have a sense of what happened to those kids. But not, literally or figuratively, of What Lies In Those Woods.

Opens June 4