Cropsey searches for real-life boogeyman

Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman direct a moody, gripping true crime account

Horror movies such as The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity emulate documentary style to add you-are-there verisimilitude to their occult scenarios. The nonfiction film Cropsey returns the favor by borrowing thriller atmospherics for a moody, gripping true crime account.

Documentarians Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman introduce the film with tales of Cropsey, a child-stealing boogeyman and cautionary figure who haunted children's nightmares along the eastern seaboard. The filmmakers discover that a Staten Island missing-and-murdered-child case from the 1980s may have spawned the Cropsey urban legend.

After a mentally disabled girl disappeared and was found dead in 1987, former mental institution employee Andre Rand was convicted of her kidnapping, although only circumstantial evidence linked him to the crime. The Rand case revives in 2004 when the Staten Island district attorney puts him on trial for a 1981 child disappearance. The filmmakers explore potential links to several other vanishings. The title and early scenes prepare the audience for more discussion of urban legends than the film actually provides. Instead, the Cropsey mystique serves more as a point of entry as the filmmakers open their own investigation that parallels the court case. As a screen narrative, Cropsey resembles the second half of David Fincher's Zodiac, focusing on some amateur sleuthing and the challenges of establishing guilt in a court of law. The deeper the filmmakers dig, the more mysterious the case becomes as retired police officers pass along rumors ranging from Satanism to necrophilia. Zeman's eagerness to explore creepy abandoned buildings at twilight builds up suspense.

Cropsey's archival TV news footage will prove particularly eerie to anyone who remembers the panic and dread of the Atlanta Child Murders case circa 1980. In the film, Staten Islanders provide local color and snapshots of enduring grief, particularly Donna Cutugno, the feisty but sorrowful founder of a group that searches for missing kids. Cropsey concludes that monsters can emerge from our collective psyches in the absence of unambiguous truth.