Hotel review

Crime scene: the Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel review – not scary, just desperately sad | Television & radio

OWhat is the point of documentaries on true crimes? This is the uncomfortable question that those of us who consume them in spades must sooner or later ask ourselves. If it’s just someone else’s suffering disguised as entertaining entertainment, then that can’t be OK, can it? But if it’s also possible that these documentaries shed light on an important aspect of cultural history or human psychology, or even prevent future suffering by bringing the perpetrators to justice, then our viewing has some value, after all.

The case that is the subject of Netflix’s latest true crime docuseries, Crime Scene: the Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, has the potential to do all of the above. On January 31, 2013, Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old student from Vancouver, disappeared in the middle of a solo trip to California. She was staying at the Hotel Cecil in downtown Los Angeles at the time of her disappearance – a place with a particularly dark past, described here with thinly disguised glee by several local historians. It opened in 1927 as a mid-range location for business travelers, but when the Great Depression hit, its fortunes crumbled along with the increasingly sketchy surrounding neighborhood.

Over the decades, Hotel Cecil has been the scene of several suicides, a handful of murders, and home to at least two serial killers we know of (one of whom, Richard Ramirez, is the subject of Night Stalker , another recently released a Netflix documentary). The fact that the Cecil is located just around the corner from Skid Row – the notorious focus of Los Angeles’ disastrous “lockdown policy” for the homeless and recently paroled – hasn’t helped occasional attempts to brand change.

In 2013, the Cecil wasn’t so much a functional tourist spot as it was a flophouse. Albeit one where, every year, a few naïve travelers have been tricked into staying a few nights, by an extremely misleading vacation booking site. (Moral of the story: always Google your hosting before clicking “buy” on this great package). The semi-serious implication of Crime Scene is that Hotel Cecil was haunted by malevolent forces – like a Lady Gaga vampire, as in American Horror Story: Hotel. However, the reality was far less mysterious: if you throw a bunch of desperate people into an insecure environment, violence will likely ensue. (In fact, the strangest revelation about the Cecil is how Americans pronounce it: “See-sell”. Weird.)

The police version of the story is better told. Indeed, several of the lead investigators were actually interviewed, while Lam’s family and close friends, understandably, have no involvement. Unusually for a missing person case, it was a well-funded operation involving 18 detectives, scent detection dogs and a helicopter to illuminate a hotel rooftop search. It seems likely the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) would have made their grim discovery much sooner, if one of their own, police officer Christopher Dorner, hadn’t carried out a rampage on February 3 – just days later. Lam’s disappearance. But that’s a whole other true crime story…

The LAPD made their discovery on Feb. 19, however, and in the absence of plausible suspects or even definitive evidence of foul play, the documentary relies on an actor reading Lam’s Tumblr blog to build its mood. strange. In American Murder: The Family Next Door, another nearly unassailable Netflix documentary, social media material was used to restore victim Shanann Watts to the voice that had been stolen from her. But here it looks like another intrusion into private grief, which has already been goofed by an army of web sleuths.

Lam’s own words have long been obscured in online lore by surveillance footage of her behaving oddly in the hotel elevator shortly before her disappearance. The elevator video is undeniably creepy when viewed out of context, like something out of The Ring horror franchise. But there is a context, one happened much too slowly during four episodes, which should have been limited to two.

The basic facts of Lam’s death are so heartbreaking that Crime Scene’s various attempts to lighten the mood with historical detours and commentary from cute eccentrics such as the general manager with the wave of Veronica Lake, Feel, at best, in very poor taste. It’s not scary, it’s just sad; desperately sad that a family lost their beloved daughter and sad too that in Los Angeles, like many other places in the world, the result of human beings in mental health crisis is a preventable tragedy.

This article was amended on February 10, 2021 to replace two occurrences of “elevator” (US English) with “elevator” (UK English).

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