Shudder’s latest is a peek into the beyond whose vision outruns its execution.
Although this Shudder Original from Hmong filmmaking duo the Vang Brothers—Burlee and Abel—is part supernatural thriller and part domestic drama, it actually aims to be a character-driven paranormal picture above all else. The character in question is Child Protective Services worker Claire Yang (Michelle Krusiec), who is noted by her boss as an efficient case-closer until this latest one neck-deep in bizarreness. In the Langs’ household, everything is tense as the young Sopviuhie (Madelyn Grace) is hurt and scarred; all the logical deductions will point to her parents Audrey (Ellen Wroe) and Giles (J.R. Cacia) as the culprits.
Thing is, logic might be the wrong thing to apply here, as Claire also detects another member in the house, an angry spirit of a woman in white (Mercedes Manning). Although this is a strong concept, the Vangs falter at key moments on both the writing and directing fronts. The result is a dragged-out two hours that mostly matches its title for tone and feeling, despite the occasional bloody streak and sadness buildup.
As Claire, Krusiec goes where They Live in the Grey’s story wills her to go—suicidal here, shocked there, and shattered overall—as the death of her young son still haunts her. Krusiec is clearly committed to the material, but her work will make the film’s failings all the more apparent. During moments the film echoes The Sixth Sense, she compensates for the faint unease and is always the one who nails her cues in setpieces.
Really, the hands that burst out from the shadows or the scream preceding the fatal truth are unleashed a beat or two later than would be ideal. During moments the film pulls from What Lies Beneath, in particular the notion that solving a supernatural problem will solve a domestic one, Claire’s investigation so often meanders and is flat as a consequence. Not to mention the emotions it brings up are highly, even distractingly, telegraphed, betraying the subtext-rich vision hinted from the outset. Instead of having the sections cohere with one another, as they could have, the Vangs cause them to constantly clash.
With that said, the Vangs do put effort in. The setpieces strive to be artful and grounded in a study of grief, some of them conceptually can remind viewers of the Pang Brothers’ sensational Gin gwai (The Eye). Some of the ghosts Claire encounters don’t know that they’re dead, a genuinely unsettling notion tied to both grief in general and Claire’s history specifically. On the dramatic side of things, the Vangs, alongside director of photography Jimmy Jung Lu, can make proximity to sadness as tangible as a foot stepping on a shard of glass. One can hear the cracks in the sight of a forever-empty seat at the dinner table, a symbolic birthday party, or in Claire’s chats with her policeman husband, Peter (Ken Kirby), who day by day loves his work (and his other half) less and less.
It’s when the film tries to weave its disparate sections together to move the plot along that cracks appear. Ghost sightings turn their focus to spurting blood and breaking bones instead of the more fitting suspense-mustering like before. A notable one includes an extended and squishy fish-gutting scene that serves little purpose besides extending an already lengthy film. The Vangs inspect the mysteries of Claire and Sophie’s too ponderously, even during what should be plot-critical moments. As admirable as They Live in the Grey’s ambition is, its execution is colorless.
They Live in the Grey is currently streaming on Shudder.