Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, the, is a terrifying watch. But not for the reasons you might have expected.
Focusing on the notorious Cecil, a grim hotel located in downtown LA, it tells the story of Elisa Lam, a Canadian student who went missing in the hotel under mysterious circumstances, before later being discovered drowned.
It’s a true crime documentarian’s dream. Grainy security footage shows Lam, spooked and strange, in an elevator communicating hysterically… to another person? A demented spirit haunting the Cecil? Who can tell. Later, mimicking the actual plot of Japanese horror classic Dark Water, Lam’s decomposing body is found face up in the hotel’s water tank. Residents had been drinking, washing and brushing their teeth in murky water from that very tank for days before she was discovered.
With a mystery like that, and a legendary director in Joe Berlinger (previously responsible for classics like Brother’s Keeper and Paradise Lost) you’d expect Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel to be must-see TV. But it’s not.
Not even close.
It’s bad. And not just bad. Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is bloated, dull and confusing. It’s irresponsible and dishonest, indulging conspiracy theories that put already vulnerable victims at further risk.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is punishingly long. Needlessly long. What takes four, one-hour long episodes, could and should be easily dealt with in a single feature length episode.
In what has quickly become a Netflix documentary trend, Cecil Hotel is in painful need of an edit — repeating details endlessly, playing for time with meaningless segues and pointless interviews. Is it a metrics issue? Does Netflix demand documentarians stretch their projects endlessly?
Regardless, Cecil Hotel stretched my patience for fake teases and false cliffhangers.
Watching any serialized documentary series demands a tolerance for deliberately-placed red herrings that are quickly resolved in the following episode, but Cecil Hotel does some fairly unforgivable stuff.
One particular piece of information, deliberately withheld near the beginning, is used to create mystery and debate around the nature of Lam’s death for the entirety of the show, only to be resolved almost casually near the end of the final episode. Hours of needless speculation and — at times — baseless accusations toward police and hotel staff all rendered completely and utterly pointless. There’s a limit here and Cecil Hotel breezes past it.
Which takes me to perhaps the worst part of this documentary: The Internet Sleuths.
In an attempt to stretch the show’s runtime, Cecil Hotel fills out minutes of screen time with a rotating cast of “Internet Sleuths” — YouTubers essentially — that range from the mildly strange to downright creepy. These sleuths spend hours dissecting footage, digging through Elisa Lam’s social media accounts, making outrageous claims on YouTube channels.
Via these sleuths, Cecil Hotel indulges all types of conspiracy theories, lending them credence and respect throughout. Only to reveal — in the final 10 minutes — that almost everything they said was complete horseshit.
It’s a technique that’s borderline dangerous.
Cecil Hotel’s endless trawling through Elisa Lam’s Tumblr blog feels uncomfortable, like reading someone’s teenage diary — but given Lam’s mental health struggles being paramount to the case it’s arguably understandable. However, having these strange sleuths (one asked a friend to record himself touching Lam’s gravestone) dissecting them uncritically on camera is a step too far.
But it’s nothing compared to the treatment of Pablo “Morbid” Vergara, a Death Metal singer bizarrely caught in a vortex of baseless speculation. After stumbling across a YouTube video of him documenting a stay at the hotel, internet sleuths took it upon themselves to accuse Morbid of murdering Lam and dumping her body in the water tank.
Not only does the Cecil Hotel documentary obscure the fact that Morbid stayed at the hotel 12 months before Lam’s disappearance for almost its entire runtime, it indulges wild conspiracy theories that he was involved with her death. Using footage of his death metal videos, alongside death metal lyrics, it deliberately creates a narrative that his involvement in Lam’s death is a viable possibility.
Only later do we find out that, not only was Morbid not in the United States at the time of Lam’s disappearance, but he’d been endlessly harassed and threatened to the point where he attempted to take his own life and ended up in a psychiatric hospital. Egged on by the same type of internet sleuths who are given a huge, uncritical platform in this documentary.
Spending half your documentary suggesting this man, pushed to the brink by an online mob, could have been responsible for Lam’s death is senseless and potentially damaging.
But it’s par for the course with Cecil Hotel, a documentary that takes an insane, slam dunk story and somehow makes it not just boring, but borderline offensive by providing a platform to a group of people who actively derailed the case and hurt people.
Cecil Hotel could have been a tight, concise mystery. It could have been a warning about online communities and the collateral damage they cause when they assume expertise. But it’s none of these things. It’s an overlong mess of a documentary that disrespects its audience and the story it’s trying to tell but, worst of all, disrespects the victims.
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