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By Michael Calleri

While growing up, did you have a mean old-timer on your block who lived alone and was a little bit odd? Do you remember a scary "get-off-my-lawn" character, who kids were told was the bogeyman?

Well, on Staten Island it turns out that the bogeyman was for real.

The movie is called "Cropsey," and it's a flat-out frightening documentary that makes most fictional horror movies look like child's play. Directors Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman have cleverly figured out a way to take fact-based material and blend it into a form that makes it seem as if you're watching something that can't possibly be true.

What happens in "Cropsey" is so challenging and creepy that when it ends, your mental footing may be so roiled that you may not want to leave the theater.

For years, children growing up on Staten Island heard an urban legend about a grotesque symbol of evil. It was a man who might have a hook for one hand, maybe carry an axe on his wanderings, and certainly dwelled in the abandoned ruins of the infamous Willowbrook State School for the mentally disabled.

This evil human haunted the grounds of the gothic buildings doing who knows what, probably devouring rats and bats. According to the legend, when he was feeling particularly ravenous, he went into the surrounding neighborhoods and young children disappeared. Did he eat them?

The truth of the matter is that over the course of many years, from 1972 through 1987, five children did disappear on Staten Island. Only one of their bodies was ever found. Was it Cropsey the urban legend? Or was it Andre Rand, a sad sack of a homeless man, who was eventually charged with the crimes?

Many very smart people think Rand was a patsy, a fall-guy arrested to make the cops look good and to calm the jitters of wary Staten Islanders. So if it wasn't Rand, who was convicted of two counts of kidnapping, who was the monster? Are there really ghosts? Hungry ones? What about Satanic cults? Even the Mafia gets a mention.

Brancaccio and Zeman blend interviews with journalists, the victims' family members and detectives, use old television footage, and add some clever editing techniques to weave a tale that is so engrossing and unnerving your mind begins to play tricks on you. You don't know what, or whom, to believe.

Both of the directors grew up on Staten Island and, like most children, were terrified by the stories they heard about Cropsey. Halloween must have been something. The two of them decided to explore the Cropsey saga, thus this very imaginative documentary film.

One of the things we notice throughout the movie is that hardly anybody who talks on camera seems bothered by the fact that the only thing Rand seems to be guilty of is being a bit strange. There's no evidence of his guilt. Wait until you see the footage of his arrest. He looks like a nutcase, all spittle and quirky movements.

Rand was a former attendant at Willowbrook. Years after it was emptied and shut down, he continued to live on a campsite in the dense woods surrounding it. OK, the guy is definitely weird, but is he a killer? The haunting landscape is unsettling. There are maze-like tunnels.

Brancaccio and Zeman show us astonishing footage of the demented inmates, many of whom were brutally abused by Willowbrook employees, who come across as crazy performers in some sort of bizarre ritual of sadistic torment.

Because Rand worked there, did he become inured to violence and mayhem? How psychologically screwed-up was Rand that he felt comfortable remaining on the overgrown grounds? Alone. In the dark. That the place was a hell-hole is confirmed when a young Geraldo Rivera pops up in a decades-old TV expose he did, which compelled authorities to shut down Willowbrook.

"Cropsey" is one of the best documentaries I've seen. Brancaccio and Zeman don't take sides. They present the facts, the footage and the fable in a way that holds your interest throughout. They're dealing with folklore and they're dealing with the reality of five missing children. Who took them? See the movie and decide for yourself.

Nicole Holofcener is the talented writer-director of "Walking And Talking," "Friends With Money," and "Lovely And Amazing." She's also directed episodes of "Gilmore Girls," "Six Feet Under," and "Sex In The City."

Her newest feature, "Please Give," is a delightful slice-of-life comedy that stars Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt as Kate and Alex, a married couple doing very well in Manhattan running their store that sells mid-century modern furniture. That's kitschy stuff manufactured from the late 1940s through the 1970s.

Holofcener makes films with strong women's roles (there are five here), and her pictures are always about how people cope with bumps in their normal, everyday lives.

The likable movie is about a group of interconnected Manhattanites who are living comfortably, but are beset with little problems, which if not dealt with, can become major issues that will upend their serene existence. Of course, on many levels they are all in various states of denial.

Holofcener examines privilege, and she understands that some folks may feel a little bit guilty about all that they have. Keener's character is constantly handing out money to street people, sometimes with embarrassing results. Occasionally she has pangs of guilt at the prices she charges for things.

Kate is always looking for answers to the "big picture." Her husband, Alex, is more mellow. They've got a teenage daughter who faces her own quandaries. Holofcener has a good eye for the little asides that exist between married couples.

There's a nice apartment next door to Kate and Alex's equally nice place. They want to buy it, because they want more room. A caustic and quite bitter old woman lives there, and she's not going anywhere. It's a genuine plus that she's acted by the lively, 82-year old Ann Guilbert, who is most noted for playing Millie Helper, the zany next-door neighbor to Rob and Laura Petrie on "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

The elderly lady is cared for by her granddaughters, played by Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet. Alex will take note of the fact that Peet's character, who works at a day spa giving facials and massages, is drop-dead gorgeous. Hall's character is a socially inept X-ray technician who performs mammograms. She's as dour as Peet is lively.

"Please Give" is about the small steps taken so that one's life keeps progressing. Ideas are shared. Secrets are kept. The furniture Kate and Alex sell may be old, but they themselves mustn't stagnate. They really have to keep their eyes on the future, no matter how risky it may seem. Living in the past isn't good for anybody.

E-mail Michael Calleri at michaelcallerimoviesnfr@yahoo.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com June 22, 2010