Cropsey (2009)

Written by Michael Schutz

If you don’t make your bed, Cropsey’s going to get you.

You’d better behave, or Cropsey’s going to get you.

That was the general idea behind the Staten Island urban legend of Cropsey, originally a colloquial slang word for “maniac.” And Staten Islanders knew about maniacs. Sort of. This was the home of Willowbrook State School, the detestable facility made infamous by Geraldo Rivera’s landmark exposé. Willowbrook was supposed to take care of up to 4,000 children with “intellectual disabilities.” But from 1947 to 1987, upwards of 6,000 men, women, and children with varying mental challenges (and overlooked or misunderstood conditions such as cerebral palsy) overfilled the facility. Conditions were ungodly. Robert Kennedy visited and declared that the people in Willowbrook were “living in filth and dirt, their clothing in rags, in rooms less comfortable and cheerful than the cages in which we put animals in a zoo.”

Willowbrook closed in 1987.

So where did all those poor people go? Most were relocated to various facilities in and around New York City, but it has long been speculated that some—those not as cognitively disabled as once thought—were simply released. True or not, that was a story believed by many on Staten Island. And what better place for these “maniacs” to wander than the island’s 2,800-acre parkland known as the Greenbelt?

All of this begins the 2009 documentary, Cropsey. We learn that through the years Staten Island became a sort of dumping ground: not just for the mentally challenged and mis-labeled, misunderstood people housed at Willowbrook, but for the bodies from mob hits, for sufferers of tuberculosis, and also for literal garbage dumps. History, legends, fact, and fiction created a perfect storm for the real Cropsey to emerge.

In 1987, twelve-year-old Jennifer Schweiger disappeared, her body discovered thirty-five days later. She wasn’t the first. Abductions and murders of children with developmental disabilities had begun in 1972. But it was after the Schweiger case that the police finally nailed their long-time suspect. Their Cropsey.

A former Willowbrook orderly, Andre Rand, had been living in the woods for years. He is presented as not quite sane himself. And a sort of cult leader for a clan of homeless men and women living in the tunnel system underneath Willowbrook. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced for the kidnapping of Jennifer Schweiger; the jury could not reach a verdict on the first-degree murder charge. Sixteen years later, he was brought back to court and convicted of kidnapping the first girl, Holly Ann Hughes.

                                                                     Andre Rand

                                                                     Andre Rand

The question is, Did he really do it? An even better question, Did he do all of it? Because Rand was tried and convicted of every case in the lens of the media and the minds of the locals, who had conditioned themselves to believe in Cropsey. Guilty or not, Rand was an easy target: homeless, uncommunicative, bizarre and bizarre-looking. Just as the idea of Cropsey had long been the symbol of everything bad that could happen, Rand became the face of that very same evil. Rand and Cropsey, one and the same—a living, breathing villain to blame for all the missing and murdered children.

This documentary doesn’t have the answers. Therein lies its hook. It poses questions that are largely unanswerable, but it presents riveting discussion points. This film casts a spell, in turns creepy, sad, and thought-provoking. David Kwok of the Tribeca Film Festival said, “The eeriness of the mystery pulsates through the film as they journey into the underbelly… As more information and clues unravel, filmmakers Zeman and Brancaccio become more immersed in shocking surprises and revelations. The reality they uncover in this uniquely hair-raising documentary is more terrifying than any urban legend.” I cannot say it any better. 

Once again, reality proves more brutal, more strange, than any fiction. So stay dark, my friends, but stay safe. The monsters are real. They live next door. 

Angst (1983)

Angst is a German serial killer film from the early Eighties, directed by Gerald Kargl and written by Kargl and Zbigniew Rybczynski. I had heard this movie discussed online as a top “disturbing film.” Those are words that capture my attention, and I finally sat down for an afternoon of German terror.

First things first, Angst is shot with terrific camera angles. In some movies, overt cleverness can get in the way, but the images here were handled with aplomb. We start with a descending shot of a prison more imposing than Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel. Like Kubrick’s film, the interiors of these opening scenes are filmed to appear monstrous, overwhelming to the prisoners. As the guard walks the corridors, we get an extreme close-up of his keys. The instruments of freedom made huge, impossible not to focus on. And as our antihero takes his first steps outside, the camera flies overheard, like a bird soaring on the wind.

Erwin Leder provides a deeply unsettling performance as the unnamed protagonist—credited as The Psychopath. We, the audience, are made privy to his warped thoughts in a nearly continuous voiceover not by Leder, but rather Robert Hunger-Bühler. Voiceovers, like clever camera angles, have the potential to ruin a film, but once again, Angst nails it. The narration plays as a stream-of-consciousness rambling of the psychopath’s mind at every given moment. On the other hand, it is not exactly necessary, because Leder’s unhinged performance gives us all the shifty eyes and frantic movements of a spun-out nut job. His first foray into the public, at a little café, is a marvel to watch. As his interior monologue convinces himself that the girls at the other end of the counter are lusting for him, the close-ups on his sausage-chewing mouth, their lips, and his crazy eyes zoom in until we’re almost inside their skins.

As he walks the streets, we follow along at his shoulder. Are we the better angels of his character, begging him to make the right choices? I don’t think so. We see from the point of view of the devil perched at his ear, ever pushing him toward madness. That his bizarre acts make perfect sense to him engage us even further.

After a taxi driver fails to understand how close she came to death, our psychopath follows a trail in the woods right out of the plethora of German fairy tales. And like any good fairy tale, there is a house in the middle of those woods. Leder is our big and very bad wolf, who breaks in and destroys three lives in a series of long, brutal, complicated nastiness. As he commits heinous acts, he calmly recounts to us the degradation he suffered as a child and his first youthful tortures of neighborhood animals. His violence culminates in an attack of startling and realistic brutality.

We have seen his spiral into madness. What remains is the unraveling of his composure. This is a deconstruction I’ve rarely witnessed in film. He is not the suave Dr. Hannibal Lector who will calmly walk away from his crimes. Our psychopath has completely lost all control by the end of the movie, and his choices will make you cringe and shake your head.

Angst is not a subtle film in its violence and portrayal of a crazy killer. Yet subtle elements abound like Easter eggs to ooh and ahh over. Apart from the camera work and fairy tale imagery, one thing I noticed was the man reading the paper at the café. On the first day, the headline reads WAR. He’s there again the following day, but this morning the headline reads PAX, Latin for “peace.” But will The Psychopath ever find his own peace?

These days, I don’t know if Angst can rightly hold a place in the “most disturbing films” lists, but there is much more to this movie than the brief gore and fits of craziness. Angst is a terrific film. An oddity, perhaps. An experience, for certain. So much more than the sum of its parts, but those individual parts are terrific, too!