Following off the success of the Night Stalker: The Hunt For a Serial Killer, Netflix’s continued interest in fueling the true crime obsession of their users has paid off. Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, Joe Berlinger’s brainchild, was already number one on February 11, the day after its release.
This four part docuseries had all the makings of a formulaic true crime documentary. An infamous case, interviews with the detectives involved, old news footage, and a haunting soundtrack, but instead this was a surprising ode to both the Wild West of the Internet and empathy.
The story of the Cecil Hotel acts as a backdrop for the infamous case of Elisa Lam – a 21-year-old Canadian tourist who went missing in Los Angeles in 2013 and was later found floating in the water tank of the Cecil Hotel. The nightmarish details of the discolored water that the guests drank for days before she was discovered are truly haunting but no more than the security camera footage of Lam in an elevator. From her hiding in the corner to the way she pushes all the buttons, seemingly in desperation, this last known footage went viral on the internet making her case so famous. Despite rumors of demons and murderers, Elisa Lam’s official cause of death was found to be an accidental drowning that was influenced by her bipolar disorder and the chilling surveillance video footage was likely a bipolar episode.
Crime Scene examines Elisa Lam’s death and the environment in which her death occurred. Interviews with historians and the manager of the Cecil Hotel shows how the Cecil Hotel was once a luxury hotel but the Great Depression and a series of ‘containment-style’ policies that segregated the poor and homeless – many of whom have mental illness and drug addictions – of Los Angeles to a fifty block radius of the downtown known as Skid Row made the Cecil Hotel a dangerous place to stay. Stories and old footage of murders, suicide, and former guests including serial killers Richard Ramirez and Jack Unterweger fill the screen – and the viewer- with a sense of foreboding.
As much as the Cecil Hotel should have its own IMDb credits, the internet also plays a starring role. The surveillance footage of Elisa Lam was released to the public via the internet and the case seemingly took over the world with people taking to YouTube and internet forums to discuss this case and become “internet sleuths.” Which brings into question both the beauty and tragedy of the internet that this case revolves around.
The internet sleuths took to YouTube in droves questioning the particulars of Elisa Lam’s case, furthering conspiracy theories about weaponized tuberculosis, Canadian spies, and a Mexican metal artist that led to him contemplating suicide without remorse. These same sleuths filmed themselves investigating the Cecil Hotel exclaiming over staying in the same floor as Lam, with one even visiting her grave site, claiming to be looking for closure. The desire to find out what happened to Elisa walks the line between finding justice for a woman that the internet allowed everyone to get an unprecedented understanding of and of furthering a career (YouTube videos are monetizable) and an agenda – whatever that may be.
On the other hand, interwoven with footage of the Cecil Hotel and interviews with the police officers and historians is the heart of this program: a recreation of Elisa Lam played by Viveca Chow typing on “nouvelle nouveau”, Elisa Lam’s own Tumblr. Elisa’s own words, talking about her bipolar depression, her desire to see the world, and her love of writing help center this docuseries and remind the audience that amidst the conspiracy theories and internet lore, a real woman lost her life in a tragic way.
Unfortunately, at the end of the day, as Lorraine Ali of the Los Angeles Times writes in her recent review, “the series, however, fails to persuasively entwine the hotel’s past with Lam’s demise.” Crime Scene’s heart does help it stand out of the increasingly crowded true crime field. However, its attempts towards creating a foreboding atmosphere do not go further than replaying the video of Lam terrified which by the end of the film feels more exploitative than chilling. Elisa Lam’s case is almost muddled by the focus on the Cecil Hotel and its long, sad history, and it’s unclear if this was intentional. Berlinger’s other works, including the Paradise Lost series, much more clearly infuse this empathy with the intrigue of true crime in an effectively memorable manner.