I can’t tell you how many times I’ve finished watching a movie and gone ‘what the hell was that?’ To get to that point you need a bad script that can’t make sense of an already convoluted story accompanied by one or more factors including, but not limited to, poor production values (shot selection, lighting, special-effects, etc.), sub-mediocre acting, bad editing, and stale popcorn served at the screening. Now that feeling has crossed over from movies to limited docuseries thanks to Crime Scene: The Vanishing At the Cecil Hotel on Netflix.
I’ve said it before in this space, I’m a true crime junkie. Having worked in hard news for 12 years and entertainment news for 13 years, I can safely say that truth is almost always stranger than fiction, and Cecil looked like it would give me a four hour fix.
Lost In Time
The Cecil opened in the 1920s in downtown Los Angeles as a 700 room palace. It was blindsided by the Great Depression and settled into decades as a flop house in the heart of skid row. Police were called there hundreds of times a year for suicides, murders, assaults and more. At one point the new manager asked if there was any room where someone hadn’t died. The answer isn’t encouraging.
The Cecil, which was so bad that it served as the inspiration for American Horror Story: Hotel, underwent a mini rebranding to change its image online and outrun the mountain of bad reviews. That’s where the story picks up. Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old girl in Vancouver is looking for adventure so she decides to take a trip to LA, so she goes online and finds The Cecil, now branded as Stay On Main. She goes missing after checking in, but security cameras show she never left the hotel. Police release surveillance video of her acting strangely in an elevator and it quickly goes viral.
The video purports to ask more questions than it answers. But does it?
On The Case
Professional YouTubers and internet sleuths are on the case, analyzing every frame from the time code to who, if anyone, she’s talking to off camera, to the buttons Elia pushes to why the elevator doors don’t close. They analyze her social media posts. They accuse everyone from hotel staff to a dark (demented) singer who stayed at the hotel. Once Elisa’s body is found, they work to explain every aspect of the alleged crime scene.
The problem is, none of this is relevant, and producers know this from the outset.
Check Out Time
This documentary is long, bloated, aimless, and ultimately pointless. Most shows like this are at their best when they give us the perspective of people who were on the scene as events happened. Not here. The manager is okay at giving some perspective but is far from compelling. A maintenance worker has some insight but is quickly forgotten. There are the guests who complained about disgusting brown water coming from the taps, but admit they still went ahead and brushed their teeth with it.
That’s bad, but the true crime here is the copious amount of time given to the internet ‘sleuths’ and their copious conspiracy theories. What happened to Elisa was bad (though I’m not saying here in case you want to watch for yourself), but what the sleuthers did is borderline criminal. The accusations they threw around hurt innocent people, and giving them a voice again eight years later re-victimizes the innocent all over again.
So I ask again: What the hell was that?
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
I’m having a cheap whiskey, the kind that looks and tastes like the bad water coming out of the taps at the Cecil Hotel. Cheers!