This new docu-series takes a holistic approach to this infamous case, examining the hotel’s bloody past, its location in the poverty-stricken Skid Row as well as the online storm that grew around it.
The Vanishing at Cecil Hotel begins with an overview of Elisa Lam’s life, her Tumblr posts acting like a diary giving us insight into her past and her motives for travel. This voice-over helps the viewer get to know Elisa, giving a voice to the victim of this case. As we learn more about the violence and depravity of Skid Row, Elisa Lam appears more and more like a mouse caught in a trap. By episode two they feature the viral security footage of Elisa in the lift, and the speculation begins. And then these few plot points are cycled through over and over again.
After she disappears, the documentary takes a disappointing turn for the worse. Throughout the 4 hour-long episodes the documentary runs between describing the poverty in Skid Row to watching the elevator footage and back again until the final episode where the audience are finally offered some answers. Even though the answer to this seemingly complex riddle is starkly obvious by the mid-point of episode two, the docu-series purposefully obscures the truth by bombarding the viewer with half-baked conspiracy theories delivered by similarly half-baked crime-obsessed YouTubers.
By the end of the documentary you are left wondering what the point of it all was, the case could’ve been satisfyingly concluded in a one hour and a half documentary. Yet Netflix artificially inflated the story to fill four hours with repetitive and painfully cringe-worthy Shane Dawson-esc editing: loud SFX over the top of overly simplified B-roll of mouse clicking and keyboard typing every time the word “internet” was uttered made the series feel belligerent and sensationalised.
It is a deep shame that the case was handled this way, with such a deeply intriguing and mysterious story and with the infamy that surrounds it, the Elisa Lam case needed no such theatrics. The skeleton of a great documentary was there thanks to interviews with the police who investigated the case, people who were at the hotel during the investigation, the hotel manager, and an ex-resident of skid-row. The multitudes of so-called “web-sleuths” were nothing more than an irritating distraction.
To give the Documentary some credit, it gave due diligence to the complex issues it undertook. There was a great section on the poverty and homelessness in Skid Row and how gentrification is going to deprive these people of a community. There was also an insightful reflection of mental health, with an informed and compassionate examination of Elisa’s bipolar disorder and depressive episodes. The documentary also reached out to the musician and artist Morbid, who the internet had decided was guilty of killing Elisa on circumstantial and borderline fabricated evidence. It was nice to see that Netflix had given him a platform to clear his name.
While there are certainly many troubling aspects of this show, it is not without its merits, it shed light on a lot of interesting details that I hadn’t come across before and ended with a resolute conclusion with no significant loose ends. The final episode really stands out as a well-structured and informative episode that elevates the rest of the lack-lustre series but betrays a greater potential hiding beneath the surface.