Abel and Burlee Vang’s They Live in the Grey values ghost stories as metaphors for traumatic repression, like something you’d find on Lifetime but with ghouls. Narrative choices favor states of depression as guided by visiting apparitions, which slink into psychological unrest. It’s a more modern brand of horror that taps into the storytelling power of the genre as a conduit for emotional discovery rather than cheap jump-scare antics. That’s neither an outright warning nor commendation, more a way to massage proper expectations. Shudder’s loaded with scare-you-senseless selections like Satan’s Slaves, which They Live in the Grey can’t compete against. This one’s for the Hallmark crossover crowd.
Michelle Krusiec stars as Claire Yang, a child protective services employee who’s handed a new case with challenging conditions. Sophie (Madelyn Grace) says her scrapes and bruises are from reckless skateboarding, corroborating travel agent mother Audrey’s (Ellen Wroe) testimonials. Claire goes along with the reasoning but senses something else in Sophie’s house. A presence not of this world. It’s the same spiritual sensation she started experiencing after her son’s death and her husband Peter’s (Ken Kirby) walkout. Claire refuses to watch another family fall apart because of unexplainable entities—which might make this her final investigation if she’s not careful.
There are elements of They Live in the Grey much like Relic or Sator, that morph headspace prisons into nightmarish realms. The Vangs don’t construct their haunted house as another Halloween attraction; Claire’s interactions with nightly spirits are brought on by her “living in the grey.” Claire retreats from civilization after her child passes and watches everyone she cares about move onward. Her grief is a shadow cast by an infinite cloud that attracts screaming mothers, bald men who bleed from their mouths, and other lost souls stuck seething in the same wayward angst. The problem is, there’s far more to Claire’s journey during the film’s unfavorable two-plus hours.
The Vangs’ “living in the grey” mentality is a sorrowful message that strives to preach letting others in when we’re at our lowest. Still, there’s lost impact as Claire’s motherhood guilt collides with Sophie’s need for a savior. Their stories morph from interlocked to at-odds, doing a disservice to the sincere admissions of brokenness on the part of Claire and Peter. Krusiec and Kirby navigate their characters’ morbid aftermath with a swell of inconsolable empathy—it’s a shame Claire’s fixation on Sophie’s circumstance becomes more of a wedge than unifier. What hoists Relic or Sator above They Live in the Grey is the formers’ succinct portrayal of grief-driven horror and scares that punctuate. The latter lingers on thinner dramatic beats that continue for too long and lack shaken screams, a noticeable difference.
In its horror flourishes, They Live in the Grey summons ghostly figures: Pale, wailing women and muscular, ranting intruders. Blood pours from already-existing wounds because Claire’s interactions with the grey inhabitants are on afterlife terms. You won’t quiver more than a chill, and the vibe is overtly indie in its capabilities. The Vangs only conjure what their special effects budget can afford, which would make a more frightful impact without such overdrawn interludes between housebound terrors. The film is frequently better at surveying Claire’s closeted feelings than challenging spookier titles like Anything for Jackson and its stable of nightmare beings—which given, its structural problems, isn’t a glowing statement.
They Live in the Grey is a modest indie with thematic layers and evergreen mortal dread that could use two or three more editing bay passes. The longer everything goes, the harder actors strain to grasp the heartbreaking poignancy of irreplaceable loss. At times, They Live in the Grey can feel bisected between Claire’s paranormal home life and Sophie’s possible abuse, made worse by the Vangs’ choice to ditch linear storytelling for sometimes unnoticeable chronological leaps. It’s a courageous approach to relatable horrors that foolishly fails to keep things simple—one that desperately requires more focus to let Claire’s introspective gravedance truly shine.
Director: Abel Vang, Burlee Vang
Writer: Abel Vang, Burlee Vang
Starring: Michelle Krusiec, Ken Kirby, Madelyn Grace, Audrey Moore
Release Date: February 17, 2022 (Shudder)
Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.