It all seems so impossible. As if it was all fabricated and written to be some cheap B-grade horror film. And yet, weirdly enough, it’s all true! Like any good connoisseur of the macabre, we long to unearth all the gory details. To be in on the investigation as we witness the timeline unfurl before our very eyes. To ride the roller coaster of emotions as we “solve” the case alongside the detectives, experts and eye-witnesses. A good documentary leaves you with a genuine sense of catharsis. A well-earned resolution that has something profound to say at the end of the day.
Then…there are those documentaries that leave us up at night. Fuelling our dreams and nightmares as it lingers on ambiguity. Driving us to dig deeper into a particular subject matter. Netflix’s “Crime Scene: The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel” is the latter.
Right let’s set the scene. A wide-eyed 21-year old Asian-Canadian travels to the States to finally visit the sunny land of Los Angeles. She’s excited to finally explore the long-fabled city of angels and Hollywood glamour. Then, there’s the Cecil Hotel. A cheap, run-down hotel with a dark reputation. A place notorious for violence, drug abuse, prostitution and even satanic rituals. This is the story of how one girl’s visit to a city ends with horror, heartbreak and mystery. This is the tale of how Elisa Lam disappeared in the Cecil Hotel.
Some of you growing in the early 2010s may have heard ghost stories about haunted hotels, spooky elevator games and bloody pipes. Well, unfortunately, this is the true story that started it all. First off, let’s address the giant elephant in the room. Some of you are wondering if the documentary does play up the whole supernatural haunting angle. Admittedly, the documentary does flirt with it.
There will be viewers who find the idea of spinning the tragic disappearance and death of a young woman as a ghost story tasteless. However, we found the documentary to have more than enough substantial journalism to back it up. These aren’t a bunch of pseudo-scientific losers looking to start a web show. The cast of the documentary consists of the actual detectives, hotel staff and witnesses who knew Elisa Lam before her disappearance. All of them help put a face on the missing girl. Which makes what happened to her all the more creepier when the truth finally surfaces.
That being said, there is a bit of padding you have to get through before you get to the juicy details. Namely in the first episode, which is arguably the weakest among the four of them. Little to no footage of the relevant case is shown in the episode. It relies heavily on dramatic narrations of Lam’s Tumblr posts and discussing the social environment surrounding the Cecil Hotel. There’s even a whole segment dedicated to the housing crisis in Los Angeles. Look, we understand that “Cecil Hotel” is trying to set the scene but none of this is necessary.
In the second and third episodes of the documentary though, it begins to truly engage us. Alongside investigators, we dissect the infamous elevator footage of Elisa Lam’s final moments. Occasionally, it’s punctuated with the sinister history of the Cecil Hotel. We learn about how it went from respectable establishment to dilapidated low-cost housing. Then there’s the story of the serial killer Richard Ramirez. A man who carved pentagrams into his victims and worshiped the Devil.
The final episode left our jaws on the floor. Elisa Lam’s fate is finally revealed and it is horrifying and mysterious to say the least. We highly recommend coming into the series blind. It’ll make it all the more impactful when you discover how the case ends. Hell, right after “Cecil Hotel”, we went straight online to look up more facts and theories on Elisa Lam.
There’s just so many elements to this mystery. What was she doing in the elevator? Why was she so paranoid in exiting the lift? Was she alone? More importantly, how did she end up where she did? The footage is deeply unsettling to watch.
The overall subject matter of “Cecil Hotel” has just the right amount of mystery and horror to keep you watching from start to end. Beyond the meandering pace of the first episode, there are a few annoying gripes we have with Netflix’s documentary format. One that we’re quickly noticing in their recent catalogue. The documentary has the tendency to overemphasise the reactions of its cast as ominous music plays in the background. There’s also an annoying practice of trying to set up levity with the cast describing their idyllic scene before dramatically cutting to the “shocking truth”.
What is this, the mid-2000s? The fact that anyone is still using this technique is laughable. “Cecil Hotel” would have benefited in showing some restraint in the way they frame their narrative. It’s almost as if the creative team behind the documentary didn’t feel confident enough with the material they were using.
If you’re looking to scratch that morbid itch then “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at Cecil Hotel” is more than up for the task. The crime documentary series manages to capture the gravity and mystery behind Elisa Lam’s disappearance. While occasionally relying on old-hat theatrics to weak effect, it still manages to weave together a compelling narrative. Perhaps, we’ll never truly know what happened to Elisa Lam. And perhaps it’s for the best. You can now check out the “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at Cecil Hotel” today on Netflix!
So, what are you thoughts on the mysterious disappearance and death at the Cecil Hotel? Do you think it was self-inflicted? Was there foul play going on? Be sure to let us know in the comments down below!