For almost a century, the Cecil Hotel in Downtown LA has been associated with notorious activity. Serial killers have rented rooms there while untimely deaths have been frighteningly common. Perhaps the most infamous case associated with the Cecil is a 2013 disappearance. College student Elisa Lam disappeared during her stay there, leading to a media frenzy and wide-spanning conspiracy theories online. What actually happened was perhaps more chilling than any of the internet sleuths invested in the case could have imagined.
We know by now that true crime content is consistently a hit on Netflix. Thus their new 'Crime Scene' series makes sense. 'The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel' marks the first season of the show (explaining its peculiarly long title). Joe Berlinger is behind it and having previously directed 'Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes', one has high hopes he'll approach this subject matter skillfully.
Forgive episode one which has one initially believing 'The Vanishing at Cecil Hotel' will have that same downfall of other true crime series (especially more recent ones on Netflix) of being too dragged out. It very quickly starts interviewing a number of people related to the case, and can feel a bit jumpy. A timeline, such as that established in 'The Ted Bundy Tapes' would have been handy here.
Notable interview subjects include Amy Price, the general manager given the task of fixing up the place; maintenance employee Santiago Lopez; former hotel resident Kenneth Givens; and Mike and Sabina Baugh, guests at the Cecil during the time of the disappearance.
It takes until episode two (out of four in total) until the series finds its stride. That erratic video from the elevator would have you wracking your head. One is urged to warn the viewer though, that what emerges is eerie and disturbing, as close-ups on a water faucet lead to a horrific reveal. You'll be rattled, but you also won't be able to stop watching.
The series somewhat recalls 'American Murder: The Family Next Door' in turning to the victim's social media for clues. But in addition to that you've the internet sleuths trying to take an active role in the case. They offer and post their observations online, convinced they're helping with their theories, seemingly unaware of when they've gone too far, or that they even can.
Like so much other true crime, 'Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel' is dark and disconcerting, but fascinating. You won't be able to help yourself taking on the part of detective, making comparisons and analyses, adjudicating what's just a coincidence and what's a conspiracy. In the end (and one won't give it away for those unfamiliar with the case), there is an explanation that drives home the true tragedy of what all we've just observed.
'Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel' is streaming on Netflix from February 10.