Review: Netflix makes rare true-crime misstep with salacious series on L.A.’s Cecil Hotel

A room key from the Cecil Hotel
An image from “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel,” Netflix’s docuseries about the notorious downtown L.A. establishment.

The first installment of Netflix’s anthology series “Crime Scene” explores the dark history of downtown Los Angeles’ Cecil Hotel — home to notorious serial killers, multiple murders, suicides and overdoses — via the mysterious 2013 death of 21-year-old Canadian university student Elisa Lam. Her body was found wedged in one of the water tanks atop the 19-story hotel that winter, and though the L.A. coroner ruled her death accidental, the bizarre circumstances around her demise continue to capture the imagination of true-crime buffs and Angelenos.

Directed by Joe Berlinger (“Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes”), “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” purports to deconstruct the circumstances around Lam’s death, shedding new light on an old mystery. The Cecil’s sordid and violent past serves as a creepy backdrop for this particularly disturbing slice of L.A. history.

The four-part series about a hotel that isn’t exactly haunted, and a girl who may or may not have been murdered, is Netflix’s newest offering since establishing itself as a destination for true crime. But it’s hardly the best of the bunch. Because while there are essentially two stories here, neither is told in a terribly compelling way.

Initially, “The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” is a fascinating trip into the city’s past, from its aspirations as a respectable business and pleasure hub to its garish displays of wealth and glaring class disparities.


Chronicled here is the century-old hotel’s decline from a prominent tourist spot to a seedy crash pad for L.A.’s underbelly, including the chilling fact that “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez resided in the Cecil during his horrific killing spree in the summer of 1985. Built in 1924, the Cecil was once a fashionable place for visitors to stay but began to decline in the ’30s and ’40s, as did the area around the grand hotel. Now Stay on Main — it was rebranded in 2011 — the hotel sits on the edge of skid row. It’s also the last place Lam was seen alive.

‘Crime Scene’ examines the sordid history of L.A.'s Cecil Hotel, including the 2013 death of Elisa Lam. Here’s a timeline of the case from The Times’ archive.

A woman walks down an empty hallway.
A scene from Episode 3 of “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel.”

The series, however, fails to persuasively entwine the hotel’s past with Lam’s demise, relying instead on the salacious aspects of both storylines to drive the narrative.

At the time of her death, Lam, the daughter of Chinese immigrants and a student at the University of British Columbia, was vacationing in Los Angeles, where she had found a hotel that fit her meager budget. Then the story gets fuzzy, before turning downright ghoulish.

“The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” falls in love with the crime lore aspects of the case, and feels more exploitative than revealing, like a production from the far reaches of basic cable — but with a bigger budget, more archival footage and a narrative stretched out over multiple episodes. And unlike other successful Netflix series that have tackled infamous cases from new angles (“Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer”; “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich”), “The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” fails to illuminate much about the circumstances around Lam’s death, even if the story itself may be unfamiliar to many outside Southern California. Netflix docuseries chronicling lesser-known tragedies, such as “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez” or “The Keepers,” should have been used as guiding lights. They infused the whodunit aspects of their central cases with dogged research, nuanced subplots and emotional attachment to the victims.

The story about Lam and the Cecil Hotel rarely goes that deep, though it does feature interviews with a former hotel manager, past residents, retired LAPD homicide detectives, historians and amateur social media sleuths who are still obsessed with the case.

Lam’s disappearance and death became a preoccupation among true-crime podcasters and amateur Reddit sleuths after video went viral of her behaving strangely inside a Cecil Hotel elevator on the day of her disappearance. The LAPD had released the footage, which was captured by an elevator surveillance camera, in the hope that it might spur leads in the case. It generated countless theories from armchair detectives seeking to explain Lam’s actions on tape and connect them with her death.

A maintenance worker investigating guests’ complaints about the low pressure and discolored water coming out of their faucets led to the gruesome discovery of Lam’s body in a water tank on the roof of the aging building. The series makes a point of interviewing at least two guests from that time who recall the funny taste of the water when brushing their teeth, repeating much of what they’d already said in contemporaneous news clips included in the series.

Tawdry details such as these are the stock-in-trade of fictional films and TV series, and indeed several — including “Castle,” “How to Get Away With Murder” and “American Horror Story: Hotel” — have had plotlines reminiscent of the case. After all, there’s plenty of material to work with. Or get lost in, in the case of “Crime Scene.”

‘Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel’

Where: Netflix

When: Anytime

Rating: Not rated