Review: “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” is an enthralling addition to Netflix’s true crime collection

Elisa Lam’s 2013 disappearance and an unnerving security tape of her erratic behavior prompt an internet frenzy in this documentary series.

By Elise Mulligan

Netflix seems to have quite an obsession with producing true-crime specials and television shows. The latest addition to the collection, “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel,” takes the viewer through the enthralling, intertwining mystery of Elisa Lam’s 2013 disappearance.

“Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” is a four-part documentary series produced and directed by Joe Berlinger, who also produced “The Ted Bundy Tapes” and “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.”

Shortly after 21-year-old Lam’s disappearance, authorities released to the public a security tape of Lam behaving erratically in the hotel elevator, acting paranoid and seemingly hiding from someone who cannot be seen.

The video went viral and set off a wild obsession for web sleuths attempting to solve the case themselves. In the docuseries, Berlinger investigates all nuances of the case, as well as taking a step back to provide context of the Cecil Hotel’s history and the surrounding Skid Row’s homeless population.

With an abundance of different elements to the case and the hotel’s background, the series rarely reaches a slow point and mostly remains captivating and exciting. At times, it feels like the director brushes past an important point — like Lam’s mental health — without fully explaining it. However, the narrative eventually circles back and ties up all loose ends for each part of the story — a difficult feat to accomplish for such a complex subject.

Instead of revealing the truth right away, Berlinger leads the viewer through the many theories, false leads and new discoveries as if they were thrown into the midst of the chaotic 2013 investigation. It engages the audience on another level, allowing them (myself included) to develop their own predictions and take part in solving the case.

Elisa Lam is the focus of the series, but she is only one piece of a much larger puzzle. It’s no longer an isolated missing person case; Lam’s story draws attention to a much broader social issue not typically associated with the backdrop for “La La Land.”

The documentary includes an interview with a former resident of Cecil Hotel who explains the prevalence of drugs, robberies and prostitution at the hotel and nearby Skid Row. With all the oddities of the Lam investigation, it’s even more eerie to know that crime ran rampant in the hotel’s upper floors.

Additionally, the docuseries is visually engaging, using a variety of media styles to tell Lam’s story with a balance of dramatics and clean professionalism. Berlinger uses interview footage, B-roll footage of the hotel and setting, stylized reenactments, clips from news broadcasts, security footage and videos by outside YouTube channels to keep the viewer interested and invested in the docuseries.

That being said, the one caveat of the stylization was the overly-expressive recreation of Lam that detracted from the authentic tone. Before her disappearance, Lam wrote many blog posts that give an intimate view of her mental state and personality. In the docuseries, voice actor Artemis Snow narrates the blog entries as a recreation of Lam’s inner monologue. While the blog entries were essential to characterizing Lam and inarguably an important element to the case, the narration came off as cheesy.

It felt as if Berlinger was attempting to show his perception of Lam as a person, which may or may not be truthful: She can’t speak for herself. For all historical documentaries, it’s a challenge to piece together an accurate portrayal of someone from the past, but this docuseries fell short in that regard.

Aside from the superfluous voiceover, “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” is an excellently-crafted analysis of a puzzling incident tied to a history of death and violence. The episodes are suspenseful and fast-paced, and the ending episodes are essential to delve into the nuances of Lam’s disappearance. While viewers may believe they have a grasp on the truth, the twists and turns of Lam’s story will surely make that certainty vanish.

Edited by Chloe Konrad | ckonrad@themaneater.com

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