The death of Elise Lam at the Cecil Hotel is the focus of the latest Netflix true crime documentary.
Directed by Joe Berlinger who previously directed Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019) and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019) for the streaming service, the series sets out to investigate the mystery surrounding the disappearance and death.
Across four episodes, the series follows four identifiable strands of interest: Elisa’s past; the police investigation; the workings of internet sleuths; and the history of Skid Row. Talking heads, reconstructions and archive footage are used to tell the story of this tragic incident.
From the outset, I’m annoyed. The series begins with an incredibly sensationalised sequence which suggests that the Cecil Hotel is “cursed”, “haunted”, “evil”. Even the title sequence, images and music, are reminiscent of an American Horror Story title sequence. And the sensationalism doesn’t stop. They discuss how it was the dangerousness of the Hotel’s permanent residents (mostly homeless people) that caused the death; or Lam’s reckless behaviour; or, as internet sleuth’s list off countless conspiracies, a TB outbreak cover-up or the recreation of the horror film Dark Water (2005).
It’s revealed in the end that Elise’s death was the result of a psychotic episode caused by her severe bi-polar disorder, which brings about the question – what the hell was this documentary trying to do? Cultivate speculation and conspiracy? Sensationalise to the ends of the earth?
The most interesting parts of the documentary were the discussions of the history of Skid Row, despite filming the homeless people as if they’re a freak show. However, once it’s revealed that Skid Row had nothing to do with the death, you’ve got to wonder why it was included? It’s an important subject and should be a documentary in and of itself (I mean, I’m sure it is), but is here just exploited for the fear factor.
Rather than being a story revealing Elise Lam’s fate, this documentary should’ve been about the circus that revolved around the mystery. The now infamous CCTV footage of Elise Lam in the elevator went viral and called to arms an army of internet sleuths. To a degree that is what the documentary is truly try to make a point about, it’s just also forced upon the storyline that her death is a mystery.
The role of internet sleuths is thoroughly dissected and we hear from many of said sleuths themselves. In the end they’re condemned, but that’s not until we’ve been lead on a wild goose chase through conspiracy after conspiracy.
The documentary took up the mantle of these sleuths by exploiting the fear surrounding the death. The moment that really grated was when, at the end of episode 3 it revealed the internet sleuths discover the existence of a Mexican heavy metal wannabe who stayed at the Cecil Hotel and released rather disturbing music and music videos. The documentary ramps up the fear factor around this guy, editing and ending on a cliff-hanger that sensationalises the idea that this guy had something to do with Elise Lam’s death. Of course her didn’t, in fact, in an interview with this individual, he reveals that because people believed he killed Elise Lam he was harassed to the point of suicide, making the sequence in the previous episode seem doubly insensitive.
That’s the main word I’d use for this – insensitive. At the end, an interviewee states that the reality was much sadder than all the conspiracy – and that’s the truth. But that didn’t stop the makers of this documentary dragging out the ridiculousness over four episodes, discussing stuff that wasn’t even relevant, trying to achieve that creepiness that now seems necessary of true crime documentaries. Well that’s really getting boring now.
I guess they made the right points in the end and some of the series is technically well done (although the reconstructions made me cringe). True crime documentaries need to find a new way of operating because it’s getting boring and annoying now.
Crime, Documentary | USA, 2021 | 15 | Season One | 10th February 2021 | Netflix | Viveca Chow, Judy Ho, Artemis Snow