There are some things not to like about Netflix. One is the looping trailer on the Netflix menu screen that cannot be turned off; you scroll faster to avoid it and exit defeated. There are also the true crime documentaries on which Netflix has built a reputation, the so-called docuseries, which shamble along like a morose soap opera with their tales of bloodshed and veer down whatever side roads happen to come along. Not all the docuseries are like this. The recent Yorkshire Ripper docuseries told its long and troubling case in three well-orchestrated parts. A mini docuseries perhaps? But for every one of these there are a growing number that lose the plot, literally.
Let’s set aside the quandary of true-life misery as entertainment. Let’s assume that a drama of six parts is a more viable commodity to a network than, say, a drama exhausted in two or three. Not a lot of true-life stories can sustain viewer interest over several hours, so other facets of the story are often pulled into the mix, such as the suspect who never was. This is all very well and arguably par for the course. But what to make of Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel?
This docuseries is not short and not long but a strange, disagreeable four parts that go beyond speculation and mere tail-chasing. The case may be familiar. Elisa Lam was a twenty-one-year-old Canadian student travelling alone through California in early 2013 when she disappeared. She had checked into the Cecil Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles where, in one of the hotel’s rooftop water tanks, her body was eventually discovered. Cause of death was recorded as accidental drowning.
Over two weeks had passed from the time Lam went missing and her body was found. By then the case had gained considerable traction, thanks in part to the high-profile police investigation and Lam’s own presence on social media, blogs and posts prior to her disappearance offering a tantalising breadcrumb trail. Stranger still was a short film released by police during their search for Lam, which comprised security footage of Lam shortly before she disappeared. Shot from within a Cecil Hotel elevator it shows Lam alone and behaving very oddly. Clips of the footage aired on news media and came under immediate scrutiny, adding fuel to the idea of a conspiracy when Lam’s fate finally became known.
But one senses while watching The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel that Elisa Lam is not the story the filmmakers want to make. Early on we are introduced to a disparate group of individuals described as ‘web sleuths’. These are young people for the most part, from all walks of life it appears, who spend their time in internet research and are inordinately passionate about Elisa Lam. Using social media they espouse theories of a cover-up, which range from carefully detailed analysis of the security footage and supposed tampering of video evidence through to opinionated conjecture. Web sleuths seem at first to be an aside to the story of Elisa Lam, more of the all-important talking heads a docuseries requires. But they won’t go away. The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel comes back to them time and again and so, in effect, they become the story.
There is a strange blind spot in the sleuths’ sympathies. They profess to genuinely care for Lam, some of them identifying with her to a frankly unsettling degree, yet they seem curiously reluctant to acknowledge the reality of her mental illness. The possibility that Lam was experiencing a psychotic episode is suggested early in the series, when we learn that she was taking various psychiatric medications. This line of inquiry is avoided for as long as possible, however, in favour of fantastical theorizing. The padding out of the bones of the story becomes almost comical. The makers flit back and forth between the specifics of Lam’s case and the broader social and economic problems of the area where the Cecil Hotel sits. Discussions of homelessness and drug use on the notorious Skid Row are introduced with great aplomb, then swiftly abandoned.
The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is presented as one more in the growing list of Netflix true crime documentaries, even though no crime was committed. The mystery here is the story and that of the security footage, so detached from normality that any meaning can be projected upon it. But there is no pay-off, no satisfying decoding of clues. This is true-life and it is not obliged to provide a compelling resolution. Alas, a true crime documentary needs a villain, and it is at the end of Episode 3 that Vanishing goes beyond merely irritating and becomes enraging. Closing that episode, we’re introduced to Pablo Vergara, also known as death metal musician Morbid. Vergara, we learn, once stayed at the Cecil Hotel. His songs are about death. He wears corpse paint. This is exactly what the writers (and the sleuths) want, and Episode 3 is left hanging with the suggestion that they’ve found their man. They haven’t, of course. It’s the worst kind of shoddy journalism, recalling the hysteria of the Satanic Panic era. Whilst Morbid is vilified for his interest in dark subject matter, we are asked not to bat an eyelid at the internet sleuth who asks a friend to film Lam’s grave and touch the gravestone for him, or the YouTuber who admits to having spent hours reading autopsy reports. Vergara is interviewed about his ordeal – but not until serious suspicions about him have been aroused. This is where the episodic nature of Vanishing matters. In making Vergara the focal point of Episode 3’s cliff-hanger ending, we naturally assume that something explosive is going to be revealed in the next instalment. One wonders how many people might give up watching at this point, going away with the impression that the case is solved: Vergara did it.
A more diplomatic reviewer might say that the producers intended Vanishing as a clever postmodern commentary on conspiracy and the spread of misinformation online. Certainly, its title draws a comparison with the 1988 Dutch thriller about a young girl’s abduction, the convoluting Spoorloos aka The Vanishing. We are immediately drawn into the narrative crafted by the internet sleuths who are revealed, in the end, to be utterly misguided. Throughout the series, the sleuths inhabit a semi-fictional world where there is no room for mistakes, accidents, coincidence, or human error. Everything means something and it points to conspiracy. When the sleuths finally discuss the point at which they realized they were wrong, it’s somewhat galling that they are still placed centre-stage. Tellingly, it is at this point that one feels the sleuths themselves are being manipulated by the filmmakers. The series closes with them delivering their most ‘profound’ and over-rehearsed lines to camera, saying that Lam “made an impact”, that “her life mattered”. Vergara isn’t afforded the same spotlight.
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel
Season 1 / 2021 / Series directed by Joe Berlinger
The notorious Cecil Hotel grows in infamy when guest Elisa Lam vanishes. From the creator of “The Ted Bundy Tapes,” a dive into crime’s darkest places.