• Emma Holt

Tour d’ Horror 2021: Crime Scene: Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, Night Stalker, and Evil Genius

Updated: Feb 26, 2021


“I was in alliance with... the evil that is inherent in human nature.”

-The Night Stalker (Netlfix, 2021)



Intro:

Equal parts fascinating and disturbing, Netflix’s recent barrage of true crime stories has invited yet another viral obsession. Since I haven’t had a proper dose of disturbia since I binge-watched Mindhunter (2017), I decided to dive head first into a few of Netflix’s latest true crime series. The first series that really pulled me in was “Crime Scene: Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel.” Something about the imagery of the front side of the hotel - the gritty texture and red colorization of the cover photo - and of course, the use of “vanishing,” in the title - I couldn’t resist. I couldn’t help but experience this odd sense of deja vu that I had heard about this before, but somehow didn’t get the whole story. After somehow managing to swallow that first tough pill, I continued on with Night Stalker, which - in an unusual way - actually shared a connection with the Cecil Hotel. Finally, I finished with one of the most bizarre and bewildering true crime stories I’ve ever seen, a docu-series directed by Trey Borzillieri called Evil Genius. The series covers the investigation Pizza Bombing case in Erie Pennsylvania in 2003. One of the many interesting facets of this case was Borzillieri’s unique involvement. For this review, I’ve decided to do a short individual discussion of each series, in addition to a comprehensive analysis of all three. Reviewing the stories in this manner, I hope to uncover the similarities and differences, and discuss why I believe true crime continues to be such a pervasive cinematic phenomenon. I must admit, another more selfish purpose of this review is to reflect on the material I just watched, and try to find a sense of understanding.


Crime Scene: Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel

Simply saying that this story is “heavy” could never prepare you for what takes place in, Crime Scene: Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. I feel this story demanded a review for numerous reasons. For one, my family is in the hospitality business, and we have had our own share of hotel horror stories. Perhaps that’s why the hotel imagery drew me in on Netflix. Hotels are something that I have a long history with in my life; it’s a place that could be a cozy place to stay, or a backdrop for a potential disaster. Secondly, the elevator video was such a pervasive phenomenon amongst the YouTube generation that nearly everyone had seen it at some point. It was like the Ring (2002) video -once you started watching you just couldn’t stop. As the series reveals, however, while many of us were familiar with the elevator video, few of us know the whole story of what happened to Elisa Lam.


For starters, I think Netflix did an incredible job with interviewing people who were involved with this incident, attempting to tell the whole story with as many perspectives as possible. I felt the case demanded that all these different people come together to uncover the truth, and to tell the story without all these different individuals would be an injustice. There is the exception of Elisa’s family... it would’ve been nice to hear their side of things. Reflecting on the case though, you can understand why they didnt want to speak about it. They did an excellent job revealing some key details, while leaving others out for a heavier impact later on. The docu-series really strings you along into believing some of the conspiracies and natural reactions that they present you with. Like many of the web sleuths, historians, homicide detectives and conspiracy theorists that weighed in on the Elisa Lam case, I too wanted to believe that Elisa was alive. It also seemed possible that she could’ve been made a victim of LA’s notorious Skid Row. As someone who has survived to the ripe age of 25 with my own share of bad choices, it’s not hard to imagine yourself as 21-year-old Elisa Lam. She was a college student who traveled to LA for the first time by herself in an attempt to reinvigorate herself. In fact, when I was 23, I traveled to LA by myself for a weekend, with a similar sense of wide-eyed wonder that I’m sure Elisa shared. It’s crazy to think that, under a different set of circumstances, I could’ve easily been dead.


One of the most interesting parts of this story, is how the creators of the docu-series shared Elisa’s social media posts from Tumblr. The insight these posts gave into her life were very powerful. Without a doubt, it is evident that Elisa Lam’s social media and her close family (esp. her sister) provided key information in regards to the ultimate nature of her disappearance. Hearing Elisa’s posts really makes you think about the impact of social media, and the imprint it leaves of a person’s life. There is a great sense of melancholy hearing Elisa’s online journal read aloud.


Without ruining too much of the series for you, I will say that the elevator video itself is very thought provoking. I believe there is something to be said about the viral nature of the video and the public obsession that ensued after it was released. There is something to be said about the voyeuristic obsession and the visceral response is generated. As the viewer watches the last video ever recorded of Elisa Lam, standing in the elevator from a surveillance camera view, they experience this sense of true helplessness. The viewer suffers the emotional experience similar to that of a helpless witness. Seeing the footage from this perspective, the viewer starts to panic as they search for a rational answer to Elisa’s behavior. I think that it is one of the key reasons that people became obsessed with the video. Without a doubt, it occupied a space in my mind for a while. Your brain turning and turning as it tries to work this evidence out. Little do we know, the true answer to this mystery is an irrational one. The fact of the matter, is that sadly we will never know what was truly going through Elisa’s head in the days, minutes, and seconds before she died. Regardless of that, I think that many of us wish that someone, anyone along the way could’ve done something to prevent Elisa’s untimely death. The fact that you could be in a positive mental state one day and completely tormented the next - well, I think it’s something we all fear. Ultimately, Elisa’s story is one that centers around mental health. Some say the Cecil was haunted, or just “plain evil,” or that the hotel’s negligence in the case was ignored. Regardless, The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is a haunting story that will echo for generations, one that leaves the viewer wondering how things could’ve gone different.


Ultimately, Elisa’s death was tragic, but her life was the only one that was lost in The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. If you watch enough true crime, then you know that mental health is something that often comes into question. Is it upbringing, mental state, or true evil that drives a person to murder another? What kind of person could commit these acts? To catch a killer, you must first understand how a killer thinks. To further explore this topic, I’ll be looking at another guest who was known to frequent the Cecil Hotel, one of California’s most prolific serial killers, the “Night Stalker.”


The Night Stalker

In episode two the Netflix series, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, LA Historian and ecotouric Kim Cooper describes the Cecil as, “A place where serial killers could let their hair down.” As it turns out, this wasn’t just a dramatic embellishment. One particular guest she was referring to is now known as one of the most prolific serial killers in modern history: the “Night Stalker”. Apparently he stayed on the 14th floor...which happened to be the same place that Elisa Lam was last seen. Between 1984 and 1985, a wild hunt began in search for a serial killer who had raped, robbed, and murdered his way across California. Due to the wide range of victims, and the unusual randomness with which they were selected, catching the “Night Stalker” would prove to be a difficult task.


A size 11 black Avia shoe print, a model that proved significantly rare, was all that detectives Gil Carrillo and Frank Salerno found at the “Night Stalker’s” first crime scene. Salerno and Carrillo tell the story of the Night Stalker through their own eyes, as the true heroes who unraveled this real-life horror story. Following a long journey to become a respected police officer, it isn’t long before freshly promoted homicide detective, Gil Carrillo, catches his first case. And boy, what a case it was. What began as a series of seemingly unrelated rapes, murders, and abductions, soon began to take on a more gruesome pattern . Detective Gil Carrillo began to notice that the killer seemed to have an affinity for the look of fear in his victim’s eyes. And the footprint… what about that footprint?


Twelve years before the night stalker - in 1972 - the Behavioral Sciences Unit had been created to further investigate the nature of violent crimes. As it is seen in the series Mindhunter (Netflix), Bill Tench of the BSU (a character modeled after real-life FBI agent Robert Ressler), is credited with popularizing the term “serial killer,” which was used to describe a murderer who had killed two or more victims. When looking at Night Stalker, I think it’s important to understand what the government perspective was on the topic of serial killers around this time. The craze of the Manson murders (1969) had become an obsession for many, including law enforcement. For the first time ever, police officers were attempting to put themselves in the mind of a serial killer.


Initially mocked by his colleagues for suggesting that multiple murders may in fact be the work of one man, Carrillo’s shoe print theory wasn’t seriously taken into consideration until veteran homicide detective - the man behind the capture of the Hillside Strangler (1977-1978) - Frank Salerno arrived on the scene. Though initially mis-measured by the LAPD, the same men’s size 11 shoe was found at another crime location, all but confirming Carrillo’s suspicions about a serial murder. Even though Carrillo had the footprint, it was all he had, and it was a very delicate piece of evidence at that. They had to be extremely careful with this information to ensure that the killer was not tipped off. One change of shoes and the whole case could be blown! While the cops did have a few of the surviving witnesses’ testimony, it wasn’t enough. Their only chance of catching The Night Stalker was to find another body.


And so the docu-series sets off on four morbidly mesmerizing episodes, in which the audience member investigates the crime scenes alongside detectives Carrillo and Salerno, waiting patiently for each new clue. As someone viewing this story in 2021, there are moments where you think to yourself… man, this guy must have been really smart to get away with all this. In the age of video, computers, cell phones, and stop light cameras, there’s no way he’d be able to get away with this today (right?). Once you put yourself in the technological headspace of the 1980’s, you realize that law enforcement didn’t have much to work with. They didn’t have GPS, DNA, cell phones or camera radar. Even though fingerprints were found on a car later in the case, the lack of automatic fingerprinting made it much more difficult to compare fingerprints without having someone in custody.


In my mind, the “Night Stalker” was not among the likes of organized killers such as Jeffrey Radar (BTK killer) or Ted Bundy. Though both Bundy and Radar committed crimes around the same time period, these killers were much more methodical and organized about their crimes, and even taunted law enforcement. The “Night Stalker,” seemed much more (to me) a career criminal; one who started as a petty thief and car robber and gradually escalated to mass murdering. His killings were spontaneous crimes of passion, ones that seemed random and erratic, not meticulously planned or organized. He didn’t leave ransom notes, though he was fond of leaving pentagrams at the crime scene. He wasn’t particularly clever about his crimes - he even freed witnesses, leaving crime scenes a mess.


Like many who travel down a dark path, the man known as the “Night Stalker” suffered a less-than-perfect childhood. At age 10, he was exposed to violent photographs from the Vietnam War taken by his cousin, a veteran. Several years later, he witnessed that same cousin shoot his girlfriend in the head. He then moved on to robbing people at the hotel he worked at, and peeping on women with his brother-in-law, Roberto. He eventually found comfort in the arms of drugs, evil, and more than likely - mental illness. Now I’m not making excuses for the guy, but it’s clear that he was brought up in a pretty awful environment. It’s unfortunate that these experiences would greatly influence the man he would become. Much like Elisa Lam, you wonder what life would've been like for the “Night Stalker,” if his childhood had been different.


Much like the Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, the hunt for the ”Night Stalker” was a public obsession of a massive scale. People throughout California of all ages and backgrounds worried for their safety. The true crime tale has become so popular that, nearly 40 years later, it’s gone viral again. So why is it that we can’t help from binging ourselves on this grotesque narrative feast?


Those who study the horror genre of film might argue that our appetite for gruesome stories comes from an innate sense of morbid curiosity. As the “Night Stalker” said in the series, “I was in alliance with... the evil that is inherent in human nature.” Popular horror writer, Stephen King, has argued that the horror genre offers us a sense of catharsis. By catharsis, he means that we, as viewers, are able to experience the satisfaction and excitement of the horror without actually experiencing it ourselves. King’s sold countless bestsellers and blockbusters, so I got a feeling he’s right. On one side of Night Stalker, we’ve got the absolute terror of the crimes he committed, but it is balanced out by a relieving sense of justice later on. Sadly, there is no such justice in the wild and unusual case of the Erie Pennsylvania pizza bomber.


Evil Genius

There is truly a special place in the category of horror for a docu-series like this. There are only a few cases in my life when I can remember being truly and utterly shook to the core by what was captured on camera, and felt like it would be forever burned into my memory. The only other experience I can recall of seeing something like this in cinema is when I was in my film and social change class in college. At the time, we were watching some heavy human rights films, such Night and Fog (1956), and The Act of Killing (2012). We also discussed footage from the Zapruder film, Rodney King and the shocking clips from the Hiroshima aftermath. Utilizing unbelievable documentary and archival footage, these are the types of films that would leave you utterly sick and defeated after viewing. Is the type of footage that puts you right there in the moment. For a small time, the viewer functions as the observer, the key witness, as he fully embraces the “accidental,” or “helpless” gaze. These films generate a visceral response from the viewer, one that leaves you truly traumatized by what you’ve just seen.


Described as one of the most bizarre cases in history, the case of the pizza bomber (or collar bomber) occurred in Erie, Pennsylvania in 2003. One of the things that makes this case notable was the fact that both the bank and police had captured footage of the “pizza bomber” throughout the incident, some truly horrible stuff. Not unlike the Elisa Lam case, in which the hotel provided elevator security footage that recorded the last moments of her life, the footage initially raised more questions than it provided answers.


Though the police initially believed that victim, Brian Wells, was plotting to rob the local PNC bank, the final footage of his life revealed an interesting contrast to that perspective. Not only was Wells calmly cooperating with police when he died, but he was begging for them to remove the bomb from around his neck. Why would someone who was intentionally robbing a bank be begging for the police to take the bomb off? The situation didn’t add up, but the live bomb made things tricky. The footage of this moment is absolutely haunting; the look on Wells’ face I will never forget. The ATF, better known as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, arrived on scene just minutes after the bomb exploded, resulting in Wells’ death. A series of bizarre and grim events began to unravel as ATF, FBI, and local police began to search for clues as to who made the bomb, how they did it, and most importantly, why?


Telling you too much more would certainly spoil some of the story that director Trey Borzillieri has worked so hard to tell in Evil Genius. While it was certainly the toughest pill to swallow of the three series, it was without a doubt one of the most unusual and engaging true crime stories I have ever seen. The first person interviews, paired with jaw dropping archival footage, leave you in a state of utter shock. The subjects of interest in this story are truly interesting subjects, and not at all what you might expect. The desire to know the truth behind the bizarre story, and what led up to this incident, is what really compels you to keep clicking next episode.


Conclusion:

If you’ve got the appetite for a hardy true crime docu-series, one that is well-researched, well-produced and utterly raw, Netflix has got what you’re looking for. Though each series tells a different true crime story, what they share in common is a sense of mystery and morbid curiosity that few of us can resist. Two of the series actually utilize shocking archival footage of the likes I’ve never seen. Footage that made me question my ability to stomach this kind of content. You can’t help but question yourself a little after watching something of this nature. The first hand footage in these docu-series went viral when it first came out, and now it’s gone viral again. If anything, this has just proved that a wild enough story can captivate audiences for generations.


Is it simply morbid curiosity or the feeling of helplessness that leads us down this path? I would argue it’s a bit of both. Our desire to help the victim, search for truth, and see justice triumph caters to the good part of the human conscience. However, the desire to peer into the darker side of the human psyche perhaps plays into our more evil human nature, just as the Night Stalker described. Perhaps we, as humans, simply can’t resist a good story; of course, storytelling is inherent to our nature. Perhaps, even a bad story can be a good story, depending on who is telling it. Basically, maybe the value of true crime is in telling stories for storytelling sake. If you’re looking for moral value, you’ll struggle to find it here. Although it’s certainly tough to find a “moral,” in any of these stories, as the crimes are irrational, gruesome, and crude, one could argue that a theme of mental illness provides a common thread. If we were to look at trying to prevent future occurrences of such crimes as these, looking at mental illness and childhood experiences would be an important place to start. Instead of letting the world chew up these people and spit them out, perhaps one small change in their life could’ve made all the difference. Or perhaps some are just born evil, as the “Night Stalker” would suggest. Like most good mysteries, we will never know what could’ve been different for these people, had they not gone down a different path. I think it is the questions that are left unanswered, just as much as the questions that are answered, that make these series so powerful.


NOTE: My deepest sympathies go out to the victims families. I hope you find justice and closure with these events.


5/5 STARS



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