by Michael Kellichner
Tropes and genre conventions are not inherently bad, but I find a lot of media doesn’t do much past rearranging the same pieces into a slightly different shape. Seeing these reoccurring patterns makes me desire something different, especially when it comes to the horror genre. Or, equally interesting, if a story manages to use the familiar trappings of a genre but twists them in a way that makes everything feel uniquely different while at the same time being grounded in familiar territory.
So seeing the first previews of the South Korean apocalyptic horror series Sweet Home, I was intrigued by the look of the monsters and the dark, tense atmosphere that the preview promised. I was hoping for something terrifying, or at least competently put together, but ended up finding something that took the familiar trappings I was expecting and going unexpected places with them.
Sweet Home is based off a popular Korean web comic of the same name. The story takes place almost entirely in an old, dilapidated apartment building filled with residents struggling in some way or carrying a heavy burden from their pasts. These characters, who are mostly strangers to one another, are thrust together when the country becomes overrun with horrific monsters and they must barricade themselves inside the building. Then, it becomes a struggle to survive, both from suddenly finding themselves in an apocalypse and from the monsters inside the building.
This is not a unique formula for a story, but Sweet Home takes the familiar and goes against expectations. Instead of some random event that leads to the apocalyptic scenario of monsters roaming the streets and halls—such as a virus or mutation or secret government experiment—the monsters are humans who have given in to intense emotional desire. This means each monster is unique from the next because their monstrous form is influenced by whatever their secret desire was that made them turn in the first place.
While all of them fit with the aesthetic of the world, none of them feel like they are cut from the same cloth. Having such unique and varied visuals would have been sufficient enough to set Sweet Home apart from other monster stories, but it also means that each monster presents a unique challenge to the main characters as they try to move around the halls to gather supplies and find safe spaces. The characters’ interactions with each monster makes each encounter feel different and nuanced, so trying to survive against them never feels stale like it might when surviving from a horde of shambling zombies.
We get a few glimpses of humans before they become monsters and can see how their desires influence their monster designs. Even when we don’t learn exactly who changed into one of the monsters, there are clues inherent in their design and how they move through the environment as to what their desire must have been like when they were human.
It’s a welcome change from similar entries in the genre that focus on a singular monster or a horde of monsters who have lost any uniqueness their former life would have possessed. Sweet Home takes a lot of story beats and character archetypes from other horror, apocalyptic, and zombie media, but the numerous different monsters give a unique flavor to what is ultimately a familiar recipe.
This unique take on monsters also creates an air of dread over the entire series, as any time a character begins to react strongly to what is going on around them there’s always the fear that they could end up being the next monster.
It’s a different type of dread than trying to hide a zombie bite, because often the characters who are experiencing a strong enough emotion to turn into a monster are doing so for reasons that make you want them to survive and not become another creature stalking the halls.
And while Sweet Home does rely on a lot of blood to gain some of its horror credit, it is most successful utilizing this feeling of dread hanging over everything the survivors do. In this way, I found Sweet Home to be less scary than tense. Though this is to its advantage: rather than trying to sustain terror through the entire season, which would be incredibly difficult to do well, the series successfully maintains the feeling of tension in one form or another through to the end.
With its ensemble cast, there are enough characters that everyone can find either someone to relate to or someone to root for. Despite there being a core group of obviously main characters, many of the side characters often feel like they are on screen for an equal amount of time, even if they aren’t the ones engaging in the driving action of the story.
The cast features some genre staples, such as the antisocial high school student, the mysterious tough man, and the stoic leader, but each of them gain greater depth as the show goes on, taking what would be a shallow archetype and instead creating believable, engaging people. Additionally, the supporting cast features a good variety of additional characters: a grieving mother, a convenience store owner and his clerks, a former soldier confined to a wheelchair, and a devout Christian swordsman, to name a few.
As the story advances, the monsters do become less frequent and less pivotal to every moment of the characters’ lives. However, by that time, because of the rich character building, the interactions between the characters became equally as interesting as escaping and surviving the monsters. While there are a few characters that grated on my nerves or I found to be tedious, they were greatly in the minority. For every character that I was uninterested in, there were easily four or five I became completely engaged with.
And this really is the part of the show that surprised me. Sweet Home isn’t so much a horror series as it is a drama with a horror veneer. Looking back, it almost feels like a bait and switch, except the monsters and the horror never truly take enough of a backseat for the show to be considered pure drama. However, even if it had ended up like that, I would have been okay with it. By the end of the show, I felt like I’d experienced something quite rare in the horror genre: I’d come for the monsters, but I stayed for the characters and their emerging relationships with one another.
This is not to say Sweet Home is a perfect series. It definitely has its flaws. While I found each individual piece of the story enthralling—the monsters, the setting, the characters, the challenges facing the survivors each episode—the glue holding it all together wasn’t quite as strong. The show suffers from a serious pacing issue, starting slow and ending incredibly quickly.
The first episode definitely doesn’t explain much of what is going on, and the last two episodes felt like they could have been stretched out to their own season. Throughout the show, there are a few moments that seem very sudden and it’s not really all that clear how certain characters arrived where they did when they did. Part of it seems to be that Sweet Home sets up familiar genre conventions and then doesn’t deliver on them in the same way as expected, but there was an equal amount that seemed glossed over, resulting in some key details being lost.
The ending of season one also really banks on there being a season two. If there is one, there is a lot that needs to be unraveled. If not, there are a lot of unanswered questions that are set up in such a way as to obviously have answers. As of now, with only season one to go on, the ending is a bit of a let-down. Not because of the characters or the trajectory of the story, but because of the shift in the final couple episodes that is obviously heading toward something new, but the exact nature of what that entails is open to speculation.
Even acknowledging these flaws, Sweet Home had me invested and itching to watch the next episode. Seeing how a monster would be overcome and at what cost was one reason, but the biggest thing was I wanted to learn more about the characters and see how they were connecting with those around them.
Sweet Home is one of the incredibly few horror pieces I’ve experienced where I can honestly say I was engaged by the characters and wanted most of them to survive the horrors all around them. Add to that the interesting premise that shakes up genre conventions even as it makes heavy use of its tropes and I thoroughly enjoyed my time watching Sweet Home. In the end, it is not a perfect series, but it was refreshingly different from other entries in similar genres.
Originally appeared in Three Crows Magazine Issue #9