Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is the latest stylised true-crime documentary from Netflix, and it’s a pretty scary watch, but not in the way you’d expect from something that has been advertised as a supernatural murder mystery.
The 4 episode documentary series focuses on a notorious hotel in downtown L.A, Hotel Cecil, and the disappearance of a Canadian student, Elisa Lam, who went missing from the hotel in unexplained circumstances and who was later found dead. On paper, this has everything a true crime lover wants: CCTV footage of the victim acting strangely, a creepy hotel with a dodgy history and a lot of strange and unusual circumstances, which culminates in Elisa Lam’s decomposing body being found in a water tank on the hotel roof days after her disappearance, the same water that the hotel guests have been drinking all along. It’s a truly fascinating story and if done properly, would have been very interesting. However, in the hands of director Joe Berlinger, the disappearance of Elisa Lam has been turned into a dull, drawn-out affair that dangerously glamourises baseless conspiracy theories.
One of the two main problems is that this documentary has been drawn out over 4 hour-long episodes when realistically the true story of Elisa Lam’s disappearance could still have been told effectively in an hour, maybe two maximum, without detracting from the facts. And I guess that’s really the problem with The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, it isn’t necessarily all that concerned about the facts but rather just wants to create a film-like entertaining story, with the facts almost an afterthought crammed into the final parts of the last episode. It features lengthy and pointless interviews from other guests and tourists to try and give us a feel of what life at the Cecil was like, and these are entirely unnecessary, as some short exposition from the hotel manager or officers involved would’ve sufficed. Every part of this case is stretched so thinly that you almost lose track after having to weed out the truth and facts amongst all the irrelevant interviews and chatter. It isn’t helped by the narration of some of Elisa’s Tumblr posts, which comes across as cheesy and irritating rather than emotional and meaningful like it was probably intended.
What is most irrelevant and dangerous about this documentary, and the second main problem, is the focus on internet sleuths. These are mostly YouTubers who have spent hours dissecting every aspect of the case and have put forward many outrageous theories, all of which are completely laughable. But instead of mocking these idiots, this documentary glamourises them and their theories and has dedicated more of its runtime to them than it has to any of the real-life detectives and investigators involved. Watching these people wheel out one ridiculous theory after another had me wanting to throw my remote at the screen to make it stop. The theories ranged from the questionably plausible (foul player or murder) to the downright ludicrous – someone copying the film Dark Water, possible links to the Lam-Elisa TB test and a vast cover-up jointly orchestrated by the police, hotel management and coroners staff are the ones that made me laugh and cringe the most.
All jokes aside, this focus on internet sleuths is extremely damaging and dangerous and this is illustrated by the awful accusations they made about Pablo Vergara aka Morbid, who’s only crime was to make music that wouldn’t be considered mainstream. If this documentary had focused on slamming these people and highlighting the dangers of them getting involved, then it would’ve redeemed itself. But it doesn’t, it gives them centre stage and debunking their theories is almost an afterthought. They aren’t even condemned for their treatment of Pablo despite the obviously long-lasting effects on his mental health. These people are crazy and this only serves to highlight the huge problem with the internet, video streaming sites and social media – how Joe public can ever think they know better than qualified pathologists and investigators is beyond me. And how this documentary can indulge and glamourise these people is even worse. From working a day job in the emergency services, I know how damaging this sort of interference and public perception can be.
The story of Elisa Lam’s disappearance at the Hotel Cecil is undoubtedly an interesting one. However in Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, the real story has been mauled and disrespected by the focus and respect given to the internet sleuths and their absurd theories.
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A contract manager moonlighting as a rather discerning film and book critic, with an almost fangirl appreciation for anything made by Christopher Nolan. When I’m not catching up on my latest read or watch, you can usually find me trying out my amateur baking skills – Bake Off here I come!