It’s unfair to judge a film by what you want it to be, particularly documentaries. Filmmakers are trying to do something specific and to say “I would have done it that way” doesn’t mean much as criticism. Taking the project at face value, however, and concluding that it doesn’t really work is more fair game. Those who made The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, to their credit, tried to do something other than the usual whodunit true-crime story. Unfortunately, that winds up pulling the series in so many different directions that it doesn’t really work as a whole.
The titular vanishing is that of Elisa Lam, a young Canadian woman who was on a solo vacation of the California coast. She checked into the infamous Hotel Cecil in Los Angeles – reputed to be haunted and the inspiration for the hotel in American Horror Story: Hotel and probably the Hotel Hyperion in Angel – and never left. A few days after she disappeared, her naked body was found in a water tank on the hotel’s roof (her clothes were in the tank, too). There was no sign of foul play.
That mystery would make a neat single episode, but to stretch it out to four, the filmmakers try to weave in a couple of other threads. The first is a survey of the Hotel Cecil itself and its place in the ecosystem of its Los Angeles neighborhood, the defining feature of which is Skid Row. Thousands of homeless people live on Skid Row, semi-permanently (one guy interviewed lived there for six years, IIRC), and the challenges of those who live there and how they might be helped could make an interesting documentary. It’s mostly used here for atmosphere, the home of the outcast existing next to the haunted hotel, so it doesn’t really amount to much. To their credit, there’s never any hint (from the filmmakers or police) that any of these homeless folks were the cause of Lam’s disappearance – there doesn’t appear to be a “round up the usual suspects” moment – so that’s something.
The other thread aside from the whodunit/what happened is the one that I thought would be the most interesting. Lam’s disappearance attracted a host of amateur sleuths, most working on YouTube and other social medial sites, who tried to figure out what happened to her. Perhaps not surprisingly, they lapse into baseless conspiracy theories and even publicly accuse a death metal singer of murdering Lam because, well, he writes songs about death and water (better round up the Marillion guys, too!) and stayed at the hotel. However, easy research shows that his stay at the hotel was a year before Lam’s disappearance and at the time she went missing he was in a Mexican recording studio working on an album.
All of that could have been teased out more, with an eye toward why these people all over the world felt compelled to investigate the case and then, as answers started to emerge, disregard them in favor of their already considered pet theory. It’s almost a paradigmatic case of apophenia, but the filmmakers aren’t really interested in going down that road. Whether that’s because the internet sleuths are the ones who take up most of the talking head time in the doc – and thus they’re not going to be probed to harshly – I can’t say. They still come off as, at best, people with too much time on their hands and, at worst, unhinged, so it’s hardly a flattering portrait.
So, ultimately, Vanishing isn’t a disappointment because of what it doesn’t do, but because of what it fails to do on its own terms. It’s a worth attempt at something a bit different – which should always be encouraged, even if the end result doesn’t live up to its promise.