Review: ‘Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel’ unravels true-crime mystery of the century

By Ethereal Violet Reyes, March 2, 2021

Canadian student Elisa Lam was found dead in the water tank of a Downtown Los Angeles hotel in 2013, resulting in one of the world’s most viral true-crime mysteries to date. With nearly 30 million views on YouTube, the video revealing the last sighting of her left viewers across the world asking, “What happened to Elisa Lam?”

Netflix’s four-episode documentary series, “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel,” offers answers as it takes the audience down a long and twisted road that is disorienting yet addicting. Directed by Joe Berlinger, the series attempts to explain the complexity in fully understanding Lam’s story through various perspectives.

The series sheds light on Lam’s disappearance by debunking conspiracies surrounding her case and demonstrating how a viral mystery can educate an audience on the harsh realities of life more consequential than any supernatural force.

Setting the story at the scene of Lam’s disappearance, the chilling tone of the documentary is amplified with the portrayal of the Cecil Hotel, which is infamously known as “Hell on Earth,” with drug overdoses, suicides and murders woven deep into its history. The editing, paired with the eerie music, emulates the addicting format that horror filmmakers use to keep their audience glued to the screen.

The series also invokes viewers’ inner detective, causing them to become obsessed with cracking the case.

Interviews with web sleuths, an internet community that analyzes crime and missing persons cases to solve them independently, add an interesting twist to the series. The less-refined sources offer a refreshing departure from traditional documentary filmmaking as they take the audience into the shoes of web sleuths, revealing their passion of unearthing the cause of Lam’s disappearance.

Law enforcement officers involved with the case and the former manager of the Cecil Hotel were also interviewed. The series successfully introduces a variety of sources whose versions of the case clashed while achieving to paint Lam’s multidimensional story thoroughly.

In addition to the dynamic interviews, the director shares posts from Lam’s Tumblr blog that provides insight into Lam’s thoughts on her final days, giving her a voice beyond her passing.

The series also attempts to state that the disappearance is not solely about Lam but about how her case affected everyone surrounding it.

By sprinkling in false clues and drawing out possibilities, the series reveals the disappointment and shock that the police officers and the public felt when discovering the truth behind the disappearance.

The most impactful message of the series is that the truth is often more morbid than the conspiracy. It may have been easier to believe that a mysterious force took Lam’s life, but this case reveals that reality can be more brutal than fiction.

The emphatic journey to discover what happened to Lam ends with the brisk realization that not all mysteries are as unexplainable as some might believe.

The director illustrates that Lam’s life story should not serve as a viral internet mystery to gawk at but as a lesson for the audience to look deeper and help people during times of need.

Although the series feels puzzling at moments, its contradictions and twists perfectly summarize the complex story of Lam and ultimately unmasks the conspiracies surrounding the case of one of the web era’s biggest true-crime mysteries.

“Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” is available to stream on Netflix.

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