Review: Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel By Viveca Chow
The Gist: Crime Scene: The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel, directed by Joe Berlinger, is a 4-part docuseries that examines the mysterious happenings during the long history of the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, with the focus being on the 2013 disappearance of Elisa Lam, a college student from Vancouver visiting LA on a solo vacation.
The Cecil, opened in 1927, has a long history of weird, odd and scary events happening there. Murders, assaults, disappearances, prostitution, drugs; some of it is due to its location in downtown LA’s massive Skid Row and the programs the city government put in place to contain homelessness to that area.
The disappearance of Lam, a prolific blogger who used Tumblr like a personal journal, had the police especially flummoxed, as it seemed that she never left the property when she disappeared. But there was no trace of her, alive or dead. So what happened?
In episode 1, Berlinger talks to various law enforcement officers who were on the case, as well as journalists that covered it. The manager of the Cecil during that time period is also interviewed. The story is punctuated by reenactments of certain event sand dramatic readings of Lam’s Tumblr feed, which revealed more than a self-deprecating streak; she actually thought that her lack of a filter will get her in trouble on the trip.
Also, two tourists from England who stayed at the Cecil during the initial search for Lam are also interviewed; they represent the tourist point of view that Lam undoubtedly had. The Cecil was a cheap place to stay in downtown Los Angeles; to tourists who didn’t know any better, they may have thought they were getting some sort of bargain. Little did they know that, as one of the former detectives on the case says, they were staying in “one of the most dangerous areas in the country.”
Our Take: The Elisa Lam case is so fascinating, especially because it’s tied up with the history of the Cecil, it’s damn near impossible to make a docuseries about it that isn’t going to be entertaining on some level. But what Berlinger manages to do in the first episode of Crime Scene: The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel is set up both the mystery surrounding Lam’s disappearance and give people who don’t already know about the Cecil more than enough information about the hotel and neighborhood’s reputation to make the story even creepier.
In most cases, we’re not fans of reenactments in a true-crime series, but acknowledge that sometimes they’re necessary in order to fill some visual gaps in the story. The scripted visuals here fill things in quite well because Berlinger keeps them weird and odd, like the hotel itself. The voice over and fleeting shots of Viveca Chow as Lam may come off as the cheesiest element of the first episode, but it was also a good way to show how unsuited she was to be at the Cecil, a trap that a lot of tourists found themselves in, given the hotel’s prices.
There will be more about the weirdness associated with the Cecil, but as Berlinger lingers over the elevator footage of Lam entering and leaving the lift right before she disappeared, with the door remaining open for what seemed like minutes and Lam making odd gestures, we start to learn that not all was well with Lam, as well. The other three parts will go into the many layers of this case, and we’re looking forward to seeing how it unfolds (though we know the unfortunate results).