As we roll into mid-February, horror fans are likely anticipating Netflix’s release of the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre with high hopes after Scream met most expectations. Meanwhile Shudder continues to excel at platforming original content alongside classics and more obscure horror titles. This week, Shudder’s newest release, They Live in the Grey, promises a blend of supernatural thrills and an emotional character study in grief. That’s a tall order for writing and directing brothers, Abel and Burlee Vang. But critics seem largely impressed with the results.
A year has passed since Claire, a social worker, lost her son in a tragic accident. The loss has left her marriage in tatters and her life in limbo. When she’s assigned to investigate a family suspected of abusing their daughter, however, she finds renewed purpose. Gifted with an ability to see the dead, Claire believes an evil supernatural entity is tormenting the girl. As the attacks on the child intensify, Claire struggles to understand her gift and find a way to end to help.
They Live in the Grey Struggles to Balance Its Drama and Horror
If there’s an immediate problem with They Live in the Grey, it’s that there are two different movies here. And neither one reconciles well with the other. On one hand, brothers Abel and Burlee Vang – sharing writing and directing credits – craft a melancholic study of grief. Regardless of one’s overall impression of the movie, The Vang Brothers also show plenty of skill. From its opening scene, They Live in the Grey knows how to balance the need for silence as opposed to a jarring score. By and large, The Vang Brothers opt for a more meditative approach, sparingly using more conventional horror techniques. While the cinematography consistently impresses, the lighting is intentionally dim to create a dour atmosphere, which defines most of the movie.
By and large, The Vang Brothers opt for a more meditative approach, sparingly using more conventional horror techniques.
At intermittent points, They Live in the Grey remembers it’s also a horror movie. And it’s here where the movie most frequently struggles. In fairness to The Vang Brothers, the movie’s shortcomings aren’t aren’t for a lack of understanding the genre. They know how to set-up and frame shots to hypothetically squeeze out the most scares. Long, steady shots and moody lighting maintain a certain amount of atmosphere. But They Live in the Grey struggles to fill its bloated runtime. At just over two hours, the horror is sparsely spread out and tension thinly stretched. There’s more shots of characters staring quietly, looking sad, than actual scares.
They Live in the Grey Can’t Overcome Familiar Story
In spite of the above-mentioned strengths, They Live in the Grey also just feels too familiar as a supernatural thriller. All the style and thoughtful atmosphere can’t compensate for a story we’ve seen play out many times. In particular, They Live in the Grey – intentional or otherwise – borrows from The Sixth Sense. Just like Hayley Joel Osment, Claire sees ‘dead people’ and we wait patiently for her to inevitably figure out that these ghostly images can help. By the time the climax rolls around, you’ve likely figured out the twist – or most of it. At this point, They Live in the Grey lapses into familiar thriller territory with only a mild payoff.
… They Live in the Grey isn’t just slow and dragged out, it’s often a morose viewing experience.
At least most of the performances are strong enough to keep audiences largely invested. For much of They Live in the Grey tasks Michelle Krusiec (The Invitation) with carrying the drama. And she’s more than up to the task. In a smaller but significant supporting role, Ken Kirby similarly gives a strong, sympathetic performance. Both performances encourage viewers to invest in Claire, and her estranged husband Peter, even if the movie itself frequently takes you out of the story. And herein lies another problem – They Live in the Grey isn’t just slow and dragged out, it’s often a morose viewing experience.
They Live in the Grey Struggles to Justify Its Length
Overall, They Live in the Grey presents a challenge for any review. On one hand, it’s hard to argue that this Shudder original doesn’t heavily repeat The Sixth Sense amongst other haunting thrillers. Neither the story nor themes tread any new ground. And it’s simply too long. Few movies can justify a runtime in excess of two hours. But the Vang Brothers infuse the movie with a strong emotional core. It’s this aspect of the movie coupled with a strong lead performance that keeps this one from sinking. As a horror movie, They Live in the Grey drags a familiar story on too long. But as an exploration of grief, it’s affecting in chunks despite overstaying its welcome.