Written and directed by brothers Burlee and Abel Vang, They Live in the Grey is a bleak tale that opens with our main character, Claire (Michelle Krusiec), trying to kill herself. The ligature snaps and she falls to the ground, gasping for breath. Claire eventually pulls herself together for long enough to go to work where she is a social worker for Child Protective Services. Claire is assigned the case of 8-year-old Sophie Lang (Madelyn Grace), whose bruises and scratches suggest that her parents, Audrey (Ellen Wroe) and Giles (J.R. Cacia), may be abusing her. While speaking with Sophie alone, the pair’s bonding session is cut short when it’s revealed that Claire sees dead people. She experiences a deeply disturbing vision that makes her realise she cannot take this case.
As a clairvoyant, Claire is haunted by spirits in her own home, so much so that she prefers to sleep in her closet instead of her bed, as she feels safer there. But that isn’t all. Claire’s depression stems from the death of her 9-year-old son, Lucas (Jaden Tran), for which she blames herself for. Her son’s death also ended her marriage to Peter (Ken Kirby), who works as a police officer. With a lot on her plate, Claire soon resumes working on Sophie’s case, fearing that her abuser is actually the malevolent spirit of a woman (Mercedes Manning) she can’t seem to shake.
They Live in the Grey features beautiful, creative, and well-framed shots, which the camera often lingers on. What’s more striking is the use of wide shots, which creates open space that feels unsafe, though allowing the Lang’s home to feel genuinely lived-in. At two hours, the film’s pacing is dreadfully slow, which isn’t aided by the lingering shots and long pauses between dialogue during conversations. These are supposed to be emotionally affecting as well as build tension, and while there are some very effective scenes thanks to these techniques, they’re overused and it ultimately feels painful to endure.
The film is also slowed down by its narrative as it interlaces Clarie’s own demons, both the loss of her son and the other spirits that haunt her, alongside whoever is plaguing Sophie’s family, including Audrey who seems mentally unwell. It gets off to a promising start, but the script gets lost and feels repetitive. The middle act drags and meanders as it stretches a thin plot into a monotonous mess that becomes hard to follow. Some scenes feel pointless and have little to do with the main narrative.
For all the pacing issues, They Live in the Grey goes heavy on the horror in the form of abrupt, sudden distressing images, often characterised by haunting faces, blood-red suicides, dead bodies, and more. There’s an abundance of effective jump scares throughout with a minimal but strong score which complements the horror imagery well. The film is another ghost story that explores loss and grief with suggestions of mental illness. To its credit, it handles this classic trope well as it sluggishly uncovers the truth. The film touches upon many bleak topics such as suicide, broken marriages, the death of a child, depression, and child abuse. The bleakness is only strengthened by a ghostly atmosphere and gloomy cinematography.
They Live in the Grey might have succeeded more as a generic haunted house story with a more contained premise and tighter editing, instead of meandering too far from the film’s main narrative. It’s an intriguing tale that gets lost in its own misery and laboured pacing. It ends on a dramatic and traumatic final act, filled with gore, but there is some hope in there if you’re still susceptible to it by this point.
They Live in the Grey is available to stream on Shudder now
by Toni Stanger