Review: Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel

Score:  B

Director:  Joe Berlinger

Rated:  TV-MA

"This is the Cecil Hotel."

Over the years, Netflix has nearly perfected the true-crime docu-series. Since 2015's Making a Murderer, the streamer has dominated the space, offering countless projects that dissect and analyze some of the most gruesome and shocking cases to plague society. Joe Berlinger's Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel further solidifies the streamer's dominance, capturing the energy and emotion of a well crafted real-life mystery.

Told over four episodes, The Vanish at the Cecil Hotel investigates the story surrounding one of the most iconic locations in downtown Los Angeles. Situated on the edge of Skid Row, the Cecil Hotel has played home to some of the most gruesome criminals, carrying with it a history that is both grim and shocking.

In 2013 college student Elisa Lam stayed on the Cecil Hotel's fifth floor when she suddenly vanished. Her disappearance ignited a media frenzy that engulfed the globe. Her obsession with social media sparked the interest of internet sleuths, all of whom were hell-bent on uncovering the truth and bringing a sense of closure and justice to a girl they suddenly felt they knew.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Systematic in its approach, The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel proves little more than your typical docu-series. Following the standard formula, Berlinger wastes no time introducing us to our eventual victim, the late Lam. Taking heads and a heavily used Tumblr account provide more than enough content to fill the space; however, the series' focus quickly shifts to that of the hotel. Though Lam's case is the primary component, the Cecil is the backdrop that warrants a long, hard look.

Berlinger spends quite some time on the tone of the hotel, detailing the events that occurred within its walls. Speaking candidly with the hotel manager, we gather a sense for the people who frequented the establishment. From unapologetic criminals to young travelers, the hotel benefited heavily from its location. It offered a rate cheap enough to appeal to the masses - or, as many acknowledge, trick those who didn't know better.

From Richard Ramirez, the notorious Night Stalker, scaling the stairs drenched in blood after a night of killing, to a slew of drug dealers, ex-cons, and criminals on the run, the Cecil had a type, making Lam's case not entirely unexpected, but horrific nonetheless.

This history, hidden within the hotel walls, gives the series its heartbeat—gaining unprecedented access, Berlinger crafts a narrative that is inclusive and overwhelmingly complete. Everyone from the hotel manager to the police detectives to the maintenance supervisor is featured, ultimately painting a full picture that encapsulates the story in its entirety. The approach is critical to the series's success, giving weight to the visuals as we yearn for better clues and more information.

The multiple angle strategy tightens the tension in the room, bringing forth a sense of uneasiness. I admittedly lost sleep due to this show. The mind-numbing possibilities of Lam's ultimate demise are endless; Berlinger's ability to interview everyone but still leave a strong sense of unknowing is something special, notably given the fact that the case results are a mere internet search away.

But that is what we've come to expect from the prolific director.  Conversions with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes and Paradise Lost are just two of Berlinger's incredible past projects, all of which serve as benchmarks for the genre. His ability to entertain, educate, and inform is profound. He hasn't lost his touch here.

For many, the ending will undoubtedly frustrate. Not because of a controllable facet, but rather a responsibility to the case and its many players. Admittedly the series' final episode drags, bringing into question the need for a likely edit. However, the Cecil Hotel bears a mountain of unglorified history.  The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel merely grazes the tip of its peak. Though many will argue that Elisa Lam is the star, the real driving force is the scene of her tragic demise.

*This series is streaming globally on Netflix. All four episodes were reviewed.


About Stephen Davis

Stephen Davis
I owe this hobby/career to the one and only Stephanie Peterman who, while interning at Fox, told me that I had too many opinions and irrelevant information to keep it all bottled up inside. I survived my first rated R film, Alive, at the ripe age of 8, it took me months to grasp the fact that Julia Roberts actually died at the end of Steel Magnolias, and I might be the only person alive who actually enjoyed Sorority Row…for its comedic value of course. While my friends can drink you under the table, I can outwatch you when it comes iconic, yet horrid 80s films like Adventures in Babysitting and Troop Beverly Hills. I have no shame when it comes to what I like, and if you have a problem with that, then we’ll settle it on the racquetball court. I see too many movies to actually win any film trivia contest, so don’t waste your first pick on me. My friends rent movies from my bookcase shelves, and one day I do plan to start charging. I long to live in LA, where my movie obsession will actually help me fit in, but for now I am content with my home in Austin. I prefer indies to blockbusters, Longhorns to Sooners and Halloween to Friday the 13th. I miss the classics, as well as John Ritter, and I hope to one day sit down and interview the amazing Kate Winslet.