Film Review - The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel

Netflix is well-known for its documentaries. In fact, I would go as far as to say that was one of the reasons it became so popular in recent years. Covering the Cecil Hotel wasn’t something I expected but I’m thrilled that they did.



From the same director as the Ted Bundy Tapes (Joe Berlinger), we get a look into the infamous hotel that seems to house evil. The Cecil Hotel was built in the 1920s and although it had a grand start, it ended up being a place where many bad things happened. As time went on, it was known as a place for serial killers to stay, prostitution to take place, suicides, and countless other bad things. One of the most interesting things to happen was the disappearance of Elisa Lam.


This four-part series focuses on the disappearance of Elisa Lam and how the event unfolded leading to the conclusion that her death was a suicide. Watching something that you know the end to may not seem that interesting but it captivated me because it really is a bizarre case and this documentary brings to light so many different perspectives. Throughout the series, we learn about the Cecil Hotel’s history, what made it such a dark place, and all the curiosities that surrounded the disappearance of Elisa Lam.


So many things were done brilliantly in this series the main one for me, being the cast. These are real people who immersed themselves in this story the time it was happening and you begin to understand their mindset. It felt like the director wanted to give us a taste of being in that world. It’s easy to be rational or make sense of things using hindsight, but in the moment, events can be viewed completely differently.


Another brilliant thing was bringing in all the different conspiracies. This documentary shows you how these theories were born and most of the time draws a clear conclusion about whether the theory was right or wrong. Sometimes people like having an ambiguous ending but in this instance, it felt much more appropriate to focus on the facts. There were a few unexplainable things though. Take, for example, the film ‘Dark Water’. There are so many similarities between fact and fiction. Personally, I don’t really believe in coincidences but there are some things in life that you can’t explain.


What I loved most about the docuseries was the way in which it handled serious topics. I know that some people may not like when there is a different motive behind a series, especially if it has some kind of political message but I think there are so many valuable life lessons to be learned. For one, we see how easy it is to get lost on the internet. This goes for web sleuthing but also cyberbullying. It highlighted how people can come from a good place but rather than help, they harm. We create narratives in our own heads that make an incredible story. Any facts that disprove, we look for flaws or even more conspiracies that validate our original theory. We can be incredible storytellers but that doesn’t mean we are great detectives.


A big theme for me was mental health. It was a word used so commonly these days and that’s not a bad thing but sometimes, people forget how serious mental health conditions can be. The world of science doesn’t have all the answers and poor mental health can lead to loss of life.


The only real negative thing I can say about this docuseries is the pace. There were times I’d get distracted or just want to find out what happened. I think the run time could have been halved. On the other hand, it gave a chance for everybody to have equal screen time and get their side across in the most accurate way. There wasn’t a point where I feel the footage was edited to manipulate the viewer’s perception of people.


One thing I would have omitted would have been the Elisa actor. I didn’t like those parts where it’s as though we hear her voice as she types into the screen. I’ve never really been one for reenactments for entertainment purposes. I believe that Joe Berlinger did it to connect the viewer to Elisa Lam. To give us a chance to get to know her. The thing is, it distracted me from feeling like I could get to know her. Yes, we needed to hear her posts, but it didn’t feel as though Elisa was reading them.


I’d definitely recommend this series to watch, especially if you have the time to watch it all in one go. There are many interesting points uncovered. If you know a lot about the story anyway then there isn’t that much that is a revelation, but it’s still worth it to get the perspective and thoughts of those who were there from day one.


My rating - 7/10


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