A mysterious hotel, shady characters and a devastatingly relatable victim: with this morbid recipe, “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” incorporates all of the most important parts of a respectable true-crime docuseries.
As Netflix’s newest investigative miniseries, the four-part saga explores the puzzling disappearance and subsequent death of Elisa Lam, a Canadian college student who went missing on a solo trip to Los Angeles, Calif., in 2013. While staying at the infamous Cecil Hotel downtown, Lam’s body was discovered in the water tank above the 15-story building one night after she was caught on camera inexplicably acting strangely.
Director Joe Berlinger and his editors excel with the characterization of the Cecil Hotel itself, shaping its notorious history into the perfect canvas for the mystery of Elisa Lam.
An act in worldbuilding, the docuseries deserves high acclaim for its portrayal of the hotel and the surrounding area, using fabled anecdotes and aging camera footage to paint a beguiling backdrop for the murder.
For instance, the documentary notes that Richard Ramirez, colloquially known as the Night Stalker, lived in the Cecil Hotel for a period of time alongside an insidious cast of characters with similar interests.
Berlinger also traces the history of the Skid Row neighborhood of Los Angeles, which is inextricably intertwined with the construction and clientele of the Cecil Hotel. The documentary calls attention to the past policies and events that impacted the hotel, such as the intentional relocation of Los Angeles’ homeless population to the area.
The docuseries gives each facet of the story its turn, looking first at Lam’s life and the events leading up to her death then examining the crime scene and the lasting effects of her murder after the fateful night of her disappearance.
Fans of “Fear City: New York vs The Mafia,” “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer” and “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” will enjoy this similar style of true-crime documentary.
Beyond the plot, the Netflix original impresses with its production value. Interviews, camera footage and stock acting are masterfully spliced together to recreate the world of Elisa Lam and the Cecil Hotel.
Berlinger and his production team showcase their abilities to their fullest extent by using a wide arsenal of cinematic accents to adeptly frame the story and present a gripping narrative. By employing symmetrical vintage filters and acutely selected color palettes throughout the true-crime docuseries, the visual experience has an almost nostalgic air, forcing a stark emotional contrast to its dark contents.
The most mysterious and impressive part of the whole documentary, however, is when the series examines the last recorded video of Lam, where she is seen pacing and gesticulating around an open elevator in the Cecil Hotel before disappearing out of the security footage’s grainy frame.
The whole video is strikingly strange and uncomfortable, as Lam’s palpable fear and confusion radiate from the screen. The viewing experience is defined by this moment of suspense, and the docuseries capitalizes on the scene’s tense and despondent undertones to enhance its devastating subject matter.
However, the miniseries struggles to sustain excitement and captivation in its middle because of its length. The documentary would benefit from cutting the four episodes down to three to condense the storylines and provide a more digestible plot.
Despite this shortcoming, an especially intriguing aspect of the plot is introduced at the end of the series, when Berlinger goes beyond the immediate circumstances surrounding the context of Lam’s death and looks at how the murder has inspired legions of internet sleuths, seeking to find justice for Lam almost a decade later.
Before her disappearance, Lam was a Tumblr blog writer, leading many individuals to feel a personal connection to her after reading her posts that remain published online. Berlinger expertly showcases Lam’s diary-style Tumblr page that connected her reflections to people all over the country who relate to her.
By interviewing some of these people, Berlinger brings the murder to the present, breaking the pattern of traditional documentary storytelling by going beyond the surface realities of Lam’s dissapearance and providing insight into the community of individuals who are still seeking answers.
Perhaps this is why the mysterious death of Elisa Lam remains so compelling: many feel as though they or a loved one could have been Elisa Lam in another time or place.