Director: Joe Berlinger
Cinematographer: Jeff Hutchens
Editors: Erik Chappelle, Colin Cosack, Geoff Gruetzmacher, Betsy Kagen, Christopher Kronus, David Moyes
Streaming on: Netflix
Crime Scene: The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel thrives on the bait and switch. The Netflix documentary begins with several talking heads building up the ominous, almost-paranormal aura of Los Angeles’ Cecil Hotel, “a place where serial killers let their hair down”, and ends up somewhere more grounded — the tragedy of a young woman whose suffering went unnoticed until it was too late.
The two are connected. A guest of the hotel, 21-year-old Canadian tourist Elisa Lam, was reported missing in January 2013. Footage of her-last known whereabouts has since become the stuff of urban legend. Lam, as seen through the hotel’s security camera, gets into the elevator, which refuses to shut. She shrinks into a corner before going out to investigate, appearing to talk to someone just out of view. She’s never seen again.
The four-part documentary smartly contextualizes Lam’s disappearance with an in-depth history of the Cecil Hotel, an establishment so frightening it inspired the fifth season of American Horror Story. The Night Stalker Edgar Ramirez lived there, as did serial killer Johann Unterweger, who posed as a journalist writing about prostitutes to lure them into his room, where he’d then murder them. Manager Amy Price describes finding dead guests in the room and snipers prowling the hallway. For a while, the series lets viewers stew in the implication that the reason for the hotel’s gruesome history might be supernatural before revealing that it’s more sociological (another bait and switch). The hotel is located at Skid Row, a 36-block area that’s one of the poorest in the world, and rife with homelessness and crime. Skid Row historian Dr. Doug Mungin’s insights into the history and demographic of the area make for one of the more fascinating detours the documentary takes.
Every aspect of Lam’s case is pored over, with varying degrees of success. Interviews with the hotel manager, maintenance man and detectives on the case help flesh out the sequence of events and fill in the gaps. Several points of investigation are touched upon, and then revisited from a different perspective to resolve any lingering doubts. Less useful, however, are the interviews with a couple who stayed at the hotel at the same time Lam did and whose only contributions are descriptions of the building’s shoddy interiors.
The series also devotes a lot of time to web sleuths, online detectives whose obsession with the case and its evidence led to some startling breakthroughs in its investigation. Their genuinely brilliant deductions are undercut by some their more baseless conspiracy theories, which include Lam being possessed by a ghost or being an undercover government agent on a mission to spread tuberculosis, which is what makes it so grating that episode 3 spends so much time discussing these.
The documentary has one final bait and switch up its sleeve though. By detailing these unhinged theories, it primes the viewer perfectly for the fallout that ensues when they spread. A musician identified as Morbid is falsely implicated in Lam’s death when YouTubers claim to spot references to it in one of his music videos. He talks about being locked out of his social media, receiving death threats daily and struggling to create music even eight years on. It’s an unexpected, and moving look at how conspiracy theorists hurt the living in their quest to avenge the dead. The documentary shifts from unraveling a conspiracy theory, to decrying them.
Crime Scene isn’t without its shortcomings. It’s too long drawn-out and lacks the perspective of someone close to Lam herself, relying on web sleuths’ speculations about her thoughts and mental state based on interpretations of her Tumblr posts. Its repeated use of stock footage of men typing in green-tinted rooms, to denote the web sleuths, comes off as silly. Stick with the nearly four-hour-long series though, and you’ll find that its conclusion, a departure from everything else before it, is worth the watch.