‘Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel’ Review: Worst True Crime Doc Ever Made

Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel | Official Trailer | Netflix

Over the decades, I’ve sat through a lot of bad true crime shows. Netflix’s dreadful Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel takes the cake.

Twenty-five years ago, The New Detectives was my favorite TV show. If memory serves, it aired on the Discovery Channel late on Saturday nights. Never missed an episode. A couple of years later, The FBI Files aired right after. It was two hours of true crime heaven/perfect Saturday evening.

I love this genre, and the True Crime product produced of late — now that the rest of the country has finally caught up with me — has been great. True crime is everywhere. There are cable and broadcast channels devoted to it. And why not? Truth is more interesting than fiction, human nature is fascinating, and these shows have it all: mystery, death, good guys, bad guys. Or, at least they did until Netflix came along.

Netflix is singlehandedly making me wary of this genre with its unceasing release of interminably long true crime docs. Sadly, this death of brevity is now bleeding over into HBO and others.

Rather than telling a compelling story in the right amount of time, we’re getting these unnecessarily looooong true crime documentaries, and I have no idea why.

The best example is Netflix’s reboot of Unsolved Mysteries. The original hour-long series, hosted by the ageless Robert Stack from 1987 to 2002 (on three different networks), covered four or five mysteries in its 45-minute runtime. The Netflix reboot, at least the episodes I suffered through before giving up, cover a single case over the full hour, when a half-hour or even 15 minutes would do it.

It’s not that I have a short attention span — Far from it. It’s just that I know the difference between story and padding. Some stories have enough story in them to require an extended runtime. Most stories do not. As far as Netflix’s latest, The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel — no joke, it is 90 percent padding.

Because people love this stuff, Cecil Hotel has suckered in enough of us to become the streamer’s number one show over the last few days, even though its four hours — and this is no exaggeration —  could have easily been told in a 22-minute episode of Forensic Files (which is still the best true crime show in history) without missing a thing.





This is what the mystery director Joe Berlinger milks four interminable hours from: A young woman on vacation from Canada had some sort of psychotic breakdown in a seedy Los Angeles hotel, believed she was being chased, ran to the roof, hid in one of the hotel’s water tanks, and drowned.

That’s it.

That’s all that happened.

Tragic? Yes.

Unbelievably sad? Yes.

But four hours?




The real mystery is how you milk four hours out of a nothing-mystery…  Let me save you time and anguish by explaining…

First off, you load it with red herrings, every red herring you can get your hands on, which means we spend hours believing it could only be a murder because, after jumping inside, there was no way the victim could have replaced the cover to the water tank.

It’s only after about 3.5 hours that we’re finally told the cover was not replaced.

We spend hours with a handful of utterly useless web sleuths, people whose lives are so empty they can only fill them by dry-humping the death of a stranger into something personal. This means we not only sit through their ridiculously stupid conspiracy theories, but we get countless montages of them all saying the same thing over and over and over and over until you want to kill someone. Stuff like, This could only be murder, and Something’s not right here, and my personal favorite, A lot of people are wondering…

If you remove all the repetition from these four hours, if you delete all the information that’s repeated for no other reason than to pad the run time, my guess is that you’d be left with 45 minutes, and 25 of those 45 minutes would be red herrings.

Another red herring is the gobsmackingly stupid notion the hotel is haunted. You see, a lot of bad things have happened at the Cecil Hotel over the years. Well, uhm… the Cecil Hotel offers cheap rates for transients and is located in the heart of Skid Row, one of the most crime-ridden spots on the planet — so, yeah, bad things are going to happen.

I’ll also bet that if you removed every ominous drone shot of the hotel, you could easily cut a full hour.

The only good idea here is that, in the final hour, the documentary finally turns against its own stupid web sleuths and admits the truth about these narcissists — not only were they were 100 percent wrong about everything, they ruined a completely innocent man’s life with their stupid speculation and allegations.

A true history of the Cecil Hotel, one without the haunted horseshit, might be interesting. The excellent 2001 documentary Sunshine Hotel proved that.

If I hadn’t intended to review Cecil Hotel, I would have stopped after 30 minutes and just looked up the facts of the case on Wikipedia… Life’s too short to waste 3.5 hours of it engaging in hate-watching.

Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC. Follow his Facebook Page here.


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.