What happened to Elisa Lam?
That’s the question director Joe Berlinger asks in his latest documentary miniseries—Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel—which explores the 2013 disappearance of 21-year-old UBC student, Elisa Lam. Produced by Ron Howard, Netflix’s latest true crime hit aims to uncover the Cecil Hotel’s dark and eerie history and establish a plausible explanation surrounding Lam’s disappearance.
The series opens with the events of January 31, 2013—the last day Lam was seen alive. That afternoon, she had visited a local bookstore and later called her family as standard procedure. However, the next day, her family never heard from her.
Detective Tim Marcia of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) says in the first episode: “I remember feeling instinctively that this wasn’t going to end well.” Marcia’s fears eventually came true. Almost three weeks after Lam became a missing person, on February 19, her body was discovered inside one of the rooftop water tanks.
Lam’s story still garners worldwide attention eight years later, as many people still question what happened. Berlinger’s newest Netflix series promises the whole truth, but for most of its runtime, fails to deliver.
Throughout the series, we hear actor voiceover of Lam’s archived blog posts from Tumblr. The tone in the beginning is conventional, likely familiar to younger viewers. We learn Lam wanted to travel across the American West Coast, find her purpose in life after graduation, and meet new friends along the way. But soon, the voiceovers cease, and ominous music plays to signify the hotel’s entrance into this tragic story. From there, the narrative wrestles between two storylines: the hotel’s past and the modern investigation of Lam’s disappearance.
The first episode effectively narrates the hotel’s history. What was once an opulent, respectable establishment had become a skeletal structure of itself, a hot spot for transient individuals living on nearby “Skid Row.” The hotel’s residents included the unwanted of society: ex-convicts, the impoverished, and people suffering from mental illness and addiction.
The “Cecil” was also home to two infamous serial killers: Jack Unterweger and the “Night Stalker.” As author and local guide Kim Cooper says in the series, “the Cecil Hotel was where serial killers let their hair down.”
But for all of its theatrics, the show does little to impress viewers. The story feels exploitative rather than truth-revealing or compassionate for Lam and her surviving family. The hour-long episodes spend most of their runtimes unearthing conspiracy theories and interviews from “internet sleuths,” who pounced after the LAPD released surveillance footage of Lam’s last moments in the hotel elevator. Whether rational or paranormal, the show explores all conspiracy angles, crossing the line of responsibility and ethical truth.
One internet sleuth, John Sobhani, went so far as to have someone film and touch Lam’s gravesite at the Burnaby Cemetery in BC and post it online. That detail, and additional commentary in the series, questions not only his relevance to Lam’s story, but the level of respect for another human being’s tragic death.
Berlinger ends each episode with a sensationalized cliff-hanger, only to be instantaneously resolved by the last installment. In the second episode, the LAPD couldn’t confirm whether the surveillance footage was altered. The web sleuths who scrutinized the footage noted this and the jumbled time code. However, the fourth episode dismisses any theories after the LAPD states they slowed down the elevator footage to help identify her.
Another conspiratorial cliff-hanger was the manner in which Lam’s body had been found. Santiago Lopez, a maintenance worker at the Cecil Hotel, claims that when he checked the water tank, the hatch was open. But one police officer later reported the hatch lid was initially closed. But how could Lam be in the tank if the hatch was closed? Could it have been murder?
The show drags this “conspiracy” out until the fourth episode, which explains away the inconsistencies as misinformed gossip. Lopez, the man who discovered the body, always reported the hatch was open.
Similar to how the hotel bagged up all of Lam’s belongings the day she didn’t check out, the show’s conclusion felt rushed. Sadly, the series’ spotlight shone on the hotel’s bloody past and not on Lam’s memory.
The only redeeming praises this documentary earns is in its attention to mental health and the devastating effects that can occur when an individual doesn’t receive proper support and treatment. If someone had had the empathy to assist Lam during her duress, this story—and her life—could’ve had a different conclusion.
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel deserves the same rating as the real-life Cecil Hotel on Google reviews: 2.5 out of 5 stars.