They Live in the Grey opens on an ominous note as Claire (Michelle Krusiec, The Bone Box, The Invitation), depressed by the death of her young son and the subsequent death of her marriage, attempts to hang herself. She’s also begun seeing ghosts, frequently violent and angry ones which result in her sleeping in a closet for safety.
As if this isn’t troubling enough she works for Child Protective Services dealing with cases of abuse. She’s been assigned to the case of Sophie (Madelyn Grace, Don’t Breathe 2, Anniversary Nightmare) whose parents are suspected of beating her. On her first meeting with the family, she sees signs of a supernatural presence in the house. She feels the ghost may be to blame for the girl’s bruises but she can’t exactly tell her boss, who is already pressuring her to close the case, that
Writer/directors Abel and Burlee Vang, who previously made Bedeviled, have come up with an interesting twist on The Sixth Sense’s “I see dead people ” idea, or as Claire says “I see things people aren’t supposed to see”. Given the similar openings, I almost expected They Live in the Grey to turn into a ripoff of M. Night Shyamalan’s film but thankfully it quickly goes off in its own direction.
Unfortunately, They Live in the Grey spends a hair over two hours going in that direction and much of it is filled with things that are depressing rather than frightening. Visits to her son’s grave and her self recriminations over his death, he was killed in a hit and run after her meds made her late to pick him up at school. Dealing with a boss whose attitude is don’t waste time, just take the child and close the case, gotta keep those numbers up. And even when they’re frightening, the backstories of many of the ghosts Claire sees are tragic.
They Live in the Grey wants to be a serious, elevated horror film and tackle themes of loss, regret and guilt as well as the central one of child abuse. At the same time, it wants to be a jump scare filled commercial horror film and the two aims conflict a lot more than they gel. The main problem is the film’s slow, almost ponderous pace. The Vang brothers needed to either trim some of the dialogue-heavy scenes to improve the pacing of the scares, or forget about trying to appeal to the mass market and go full A24 with They Live in the Grey.
The final act does layer on a few surprises including a twist I didn’t see coming, although I probably should have. There’s also an unexpectedly eventful climax with some decent CGI and sound effects. If the rest of They Live in the Grey had moved at this pace it would have been a much more entertaining film.
But the makers of They Live in the Grey seem to be more interested in things like Claire trying to reconnect with her police officer husband Peter (Ken Kirby, A Spy Movie, Grandmother’s Gold) than serving up scares. That not only allows for an eye-rolling coincidence in the final act but makes the direction of a hinted-at sequel or franchise seem out of character with the rest of the film.
I can respect what the Vangs were trying to do with They Live in the Grey and it’s not without its good moments. But the film’s lack of a clear vision of what it wants to be and excessive length make it a failed effort.
They Live in the Grey is currently available to stream on Shudder.