They Live In the Grey: A Near Perfect Shudder Original

They Live in the Grey, written and directed by the Vang Brothers, is a powerful and deeply sad film. On the surface, it is about two women and the ghosts which trouble them and which they are unable to talk about. Underneath, it is also about the more personal issues which they struggle to confront: grief, secrets, and the pain that they cause to one’s relationships, also unspoken.

There are a number of familiar aspects to this film, but this isn’t an issue. As a whole, They Live in the Grey is a tight and very individual package. The central character, Claire (Michelle Krusiec), is a clairvoyant by nature, though nothing like Elise from the Insidious films. She works with children, so once I discovered that she can see dead people, I couldn’t help expecting a Sixth Sense-type story about messages or pleas for help from the “other side”; the Shyamalan film didn’t actually come to mind again though until right near the end. This story is barely about the dead people at all but considers instead what life is for Claire and other haunted people.

Claire works for Child Protective Services, though not quite as professional or distanced from her clients as she has been when working at her best: she very clearly does not place much value on the life she lives, and this attitude impacts her work. Claire is tasked with looking into the welfare of young Sophie (Madelyn Grace, Don’t Breathe 2), and when she discovers that the ghost of a woman is tormenting Sophie’s family, she is inclined to sympathise with them rather than scrutinise. They Live in the Grey follows Claire’s efforts to protect Sophie and her parents Audrey (Ellen Wroe) and Giles (J.R. Cacia) from the increasingly violent spirit while also navigating her own way towards closure from trauma.

Mercedes Manning as the woman in They Live in the Grey

Krusiec comes from Chinese heritage, and I must say it is refreshing to see an Asian American actor (let alone lead) in a film where the character’s cultural background is not used as a plot device or prompt for any kind of message. The themes in this film can apply to any of us, after all. There is a good range of cultures represented in They Live in the Grey, and done so in such a way that I have the impression this is a genuine representation of multicultural urban USA: none of the casting here feels like (perhaps old-fashioned) tokenism or (more modern) wokeness.

Irrespective of her background, Krusiec carries the film with poise and obvious talent, though the performance which impressed me more was that of Ellen Wroe, who played Sophie’s distressed mother Audrey. Like Claire, Audrey struggles to find the capacity to handle what life throws at her, but her struggle is different, as is her emotional response to that struggle. Wroe is incredibly expressive, whether working hard at quietly ignoring everything or screaming for release. Both women were difficult to watch at times, but the repressed tension she showed really touched a nerve.

As I mentioned at the start, Burlee Vang and Abel Vang have made something both powerful and sad in They Live in the Grey. The dialogue is delivered slowly for the most part, as is the pace of the film in general. In other hands, this film could have been half an hour shorter. It never feels dull, though; if it had moved along a bit faster, that would have felt disrespectful to the content, and the pace reflects how carefully all the characters tread around each other. The character of Claire’s husband Peter (Ken Kirby) sums this up throughout every attempted conversation with her, at one point talking about the emotional walls she has erected: “There’s no windows, no door: I’m always trying to find a way in.”

Michelle Krusiec as Claire in They Live in the Grey - Photo Credit: Shudder

If it wasn’t already obvious, there’s a huge amount that I admire about this film, and it all hangs together beautifully. The themes of broken communication and (real or imagined) obstacles in a relationship are complemented by Jimmy Jung Lu’s cinematography. He uses lots of wide views of domestic settings that make everyone appear lost in their own homes. There is a real sense of isolation in the performances and direction as a whole: Audrey just stare at the waste disposal while her husband is occupied with a phone call, and no-one, absolutely no-one understands each other’s experiences, whether they try or not.

I’m sorry if the film sounds too miserable. The content is heavy—right from the start—for sure, but it is rewarding, undoubtedly impressive, and (if you don’t mind the tiniest of spoilers) has a hint of hope at its close. I would not recommend They Live in the Grey to anyone who has been through the end of a marriage or death of a child in recent times, but if a trauma of that sort is a little farther behind you, the film may offer some valuable perspective. I have only a couple of very minor negative issues to raise. Firstly, David Williams’ score is beautiful, but it hardly lets up, pausing only for what seems like a couple of brief scenes. Also, the ghosts in the story (even the main ones in Sophie’s home) are given virtually no explanation. Perhaps neat summations, as in Stir of Echoes, are a little too tidy or out of fashion, and I doubt if ghosts were real that they would come with a complete back story.

They Live in the Grey is a Shudder Original and will premiere on 17 February 2022.

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Written by Alix Turner

Alix discovered both David Lynch and Hardware in 1990, and has been seeking out weird and nasty films ever since (though their tastes have become broader and more cosmopolitan). A few years ago, Alix discovered a fondness for genre festivals and a knack for writing about films, and now cannot seem to stop. They especially appreciate wit and representation on screen, and introducing old favourites to their teenage daughter.

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