“CRIME SCENE” PROBES BIZARRE CASE AT NOTORIOUS HOTEL
A TV Review by Tim Riley
“CRIME SCENE: THE VANISHING AT THE CECIL HOTEL” ON NETFLIX
A tourist checking into a hotel would usually check out at the front desk at the end of a stay. What happens when a guest arrives at a hotel, settles into a room and there’s never a sign of departure? That’s the mystery behind the bizarre case of a young Canadian visitor taking up lodging in a sketchy hotel in a dangerous part of downtown Los Angeles, which is uncomfortably proximate to the widespread homeless encampments of Skid Row. Netflix’s four-part docuseries “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” explores what happened to 21-year-old Elisa Lam, a student at the University of British Columbia and a prodigious blogger who used Tumblr as a personal diary.
Director and Executive Producer Joe Berlinger (“Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes”), a serious filmmaker with landmark documentaries to his credit, has expressed a fascination with what can make a certain place a nexus of crime. “The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” is equally focused on the unfortunate disappearance of Elisa Lam and the history of a once glorious hotel built in 1924, which one of the many talking heads in the documentary asks is “consumed by a nexus of dark energy.”
For another person, the Cecil Hotel is described as “an exalted space of crime, of violence, of spookiness that continues to call to us.” But it’s the affordable room rate that draws Elisa Lam to the Cecil on January 28, 2013. At about the same time, a young couple from England checked in to the Cecil, observing their awe of the very spacious lobby that was beautiful and grand, and indeed it appears to be exactly that. Another talking head found the Cecil to be a “very deceiving hotel. There’s a lot of beauty to it, but it was the complete opposite of beauty.” He’s either been a guest in a shabby room or was ruminating about the hotel’s notorious history.
This docuseries should be a cautionary tale for any unwary traveler unfamiliar with their surroundings. LAPD Detective Sergeant Jim McSorley says the neighborhood is “Ground Zero of one of the most dangerous and violent places in the United States of America.” Interestingly, what we learn about Elisa as a person is exclusively derived from her prolific social media posts which paint a fascinating picture of the mind of a person eager for adventure while coping with a bipolar disorder. Her first days in Los Angeles appear to be normal activities, with a visit to a fabled bookstore and a television show taping where it is revealed her odd behavior had her escorted from the premises. Whether a flight of fancy or insightful, one of Elisa’s posts on Tumblr divulged a thought process in her state of mind that could be very telling: “My mouth is my downfall and it will get me in trouble.”The night of January 31, 2013, is the last time that Elisa is seen, and it happens to be from video surveillance of a hotel elevator which fuels a wide range of conspiracy theories and speculations that consume social media, blogs, and YouTube.
In the video, Elisa is seen acting strangely, entering and exiting and then re-entering the elevator, pushing the buttons of multiple floors, making odd hand gestures and looking as if someone might be in the hallway, and then hiding in a corner of the elevator. When this video is released by the police in hopes of getting clues to her vanishing, internet sleuths and conspiracy theorists go into overdrive, with some accusing the police and the hotel of a cover-up and others targeting a potential suspect. With nothing more to latch on to than a death metal video, a musician with the stage name of Morbid (Pablo Vergara), the lead singer of Dynasty of Darkness and worshipper of Satan, is identified by a foreign news outlet as a suspect. As it turns out, Pablo Vergara stayed at the hotel a year earlier and the police found he was not in the country at the same as Elisa. In an interview, Vergara sums up that the Cecil is “just a portal to hell. Once you step in there, bad things happen.” Amy Price, the hotel’s general manager at the time, adds her views to the hotel’s problems with drug dealers, prostitutes, and murders, noting that around 80 deaths occurred during her ten years. The Cecil was even the home to infamous serial killer Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker. Was Elisa Lam a victim of a murderous guest or one of the low-income tenants? Was she a victim of a psychotic episode due to her bipolar disorder? A fascination with true-crime stories is trying to figure out what really happened. In this case, there are so many questions, and the best reason to watch “The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” to the end is likely your own thoughts about why and how Elisa Lam wound up in a bad place.