I should preface this review by telling you that I have never heard of The Cecil Hotel. I had also never heard of the mysterious circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Elisa Lam in 2013 or even watched the trailer for Crime Scene: The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel. But, the Netflix algorithm kindly put it front and center on my screen so I thought – “Why not?”.
At first it was intriguing, like an episode of Unsolved Mysteries. The four-part documentary series from Joe Berlinger focuses on Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old Canadian who went missing in downtown LA when travelling by herself in February 2013. Her last known whereabouts were in a place called The Cecil Hotel. After stepping out of an elevator, she upped and vanished without a trace. So what happened to her?
This is where the documentary gets interesting. Berlinger managed to bring together almost every single person who had a vested interest in the case. Homicide detectives, the hotel manager, the maintenance man, historians, journalists who covered the story, and of course the internet sleuths. They got involved once the LAPD released footage of Lam's last sighting – in the hotel, in an elevator. As one of the first videos to ever go viral, it garnered worldwide attention, not least because of its incredibly creepy nature.
The world wanted to know what happened to Elisa Lam and the internet sleuths decided to find out. I began to think it was going to be similar to Don't F**k With Cats, and the case would be solved by dedicated web users. Not so. In fact, if anything, Crime Scene: The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel highlights just how conspiracy theories rage out of control. That the second-guessing of professionals involved in the case can be seriously detrimental to solving crimes. And the repercussions are far-reaching. Just ask Morbid, a wrongly accused innocent man whose life was ruined by this case.
Cleverly, all of the theories about Elisa Lam are addressed, just not immediately. Joe Berlinger allows the internet sleuths to voice their opinions and only towards the end brings back the detectives and pathologists to address them. If I had one criticism it's that the sleuths were given far too much air time.
The case is interesting enough without the two cents worth from people who only knew Elisa Lam from reading her Tumblr entries. Sure, the interest in the case online was what propelled it around the world. But when a guy, who by his own admission, only spent ‘hours' researching it decides that he knows more, and the pathologist is wrong, then be prepared for your eyes to roll back into your head with incredulity.
Crime Scene: The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel is fascinating – there is no question that you will be glued. However, this is also a very sad story from lots of angles. The life of Elisa Lam, the situation with Skid Row, the destruction of Morbid's life, and the legacy that sometimes the internet does far more harm than good.