Out of the Past, Into the Future: Nicholas Payne Santos '19
BY Cody Daniel Beltis , November 13, 2020
Out of the Past, Into the Future is a bi-weekly series that aims to chronicle a limitless scope of work by Columbia filmmaker’s representative of the past, present, and future. This series investigates how Columbia film projects, and the bespoke stories therein, are enmeshed with tales of history and experience, and harbingers of what’s to come.
This week we sat down with alumnus Nicholas Payne Santos to discuss how the past and present informed his holiday-themed horror, It Cuts Deep.
Generated with a percipience of classic horror films, It Cuts Deep, the first feature by alumnus Nicholas Payne Santos ’19, exploits the tawdry plot twists of a grindhouse horror and the gratuitous spectacle of ’80s slasher films. At the center is a couple at a juncture of their relationship, discussing marriage and eventually, pregnancy, but like many horror films, its themes run much deeper. It Cuts Deep premiered in early October as part of NIGHTSTREAM. The film is also making the rounds in the international horror film festival circuit, at festivals such as Salem Horror, Grimmfest (UK), Nightmares, and Panic Fest Tricks and Treats.
“I always wanted to work in this genre,” said Payne Santos, “I was also a little afraid of it. A lot of my original work was comedy based. In 2015, I produced a short horror-comedy, Sleeps Well on Knives, and started my degree in directing a few years later at Columbia. During my first year, I had this idea for a short horror comedy called Holiday Fear, and that played over fifty festivals. After that did well, I thought that I should try a horror-comedy feature. Right around that time I was also planning to propose to my girlfriend, and that incited a lot of fear for me, so I thought I would translate that into a theme of fear about getting married and having children.”
It Cuts Deep, which subsumes the fringes of mumblecore, slasher, and psychological thriller, focuses on Sam, played by comedian Charles Gould, who goes on a vacation to his childhood home with girlfriend Ashley, played by Quinn Jackson. There, Sam must confront his severe reservation about getting married and having children. When his charming childhood friend, played by John Anderson, turns up on their doorstep, Sam becomes chillingly paranoid of Ashley’s affections, which foments a harrowing sequence of bloody murders.
“It Cuts Deep reflects something I’ve always been working towards, and my present place in the world, since I had just proposed to my wife,” Payne Santos said. “It was the perfect starting point, ripe for a horror film. We also shot the film in my hometown of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. There is a lot of nostalgia blended in—the movie feels like home for me.”
Payne Santos’ short, Holiday Fear, inspired the Christmas setting, but there were other reasons for this too. Facing production delays, which moved shooting into December, Payne Santos thought it was only appropriate to make additions to the script with the soul of the holidays. “I’ve always liked holiday features,” Payne Santos said. He wrote the script for the short while a student at Columbia, receiving guidance from professor Trey Ellis. He was also influenced by some of the short horror films screened in Special Lecturer Dan Kleinman’s course, Secrets of the Short.
In addition to insights from Columbia faculty, Payne Santos said three major films led to the genesis of It Cuts Deep—Jordan Peele’s critically-acclaimed Get Out, Kubrick’s The Shining, and Edgar Wright’s Shawn of the Dead. “I examined, in depth, the structure of Get Out and the comedy and farce of Shawn of the Dead. I loved the grindhouse elements of Shawn of the Dead. I use the comedy in this film to my advantage to satirize the horror genre,” he said.
The Shining was an archetypal touchstone for the structure and characterization of the film. Sam’s eccentricities and descent into irrationality are likened to that of Jack Torrance in The Shining, as well as the slow reveal of an antagonistic force, and the main character's goals and obstacles. In addition, the arrival at a remote location where the characters remain cornered for the majority of the film, as well as a third act finale of perpetual violence, are notorious mainstays of the structure of The Shining.
Similar to the theme of racial injustice in Get Out, Payne Santos wanted to explore a social theme as well. This manifested in the toxic masculinity evident in the film, an extreme bearing of a man driven mad by the threat of commitment. “Sam learns that his girlfriend really wants to get serious and have children, so he starts freaking out and begins his descent into a mentally downward spiral. When he runs into a childhood friend who is more handsome and paternal than he is, he goes even further into darkness. So it is also a jealousy narrative between the two men.”
In conceiving this film, not only did Payne Santos consider recent horror and their more sophisticated social themes, but he also fondly recalled the effects of the classics. He said the practical, gory aesthetics of the film were influenced by director John Carpenter, including his film Halloween, as well as other late ’70s and ’80s slasher films such as Friday the 13th. His august special effects artist, Jared Balog, helped him create an ersatz throat slit, a foot and neck stabbed with screw drivers, a torso stabbed with a machete, and a baby apparition roaming across a floor, using makeup and precise staging.
In many ways, the special effects of It Cuts Deep—dramatic blood splatters and ostentatious murder scenes—were what made the film exciting to direct for Payne Santos. “I love the classic effects used in horror, and I didn’t want to lean so heavily on digital effects,” he said. “Everyone loved watching the process of creating effects on set, and being a part of that. It was something to celebrate. At the end, when the antagonist gets killed there is a giant blood spray. When we had to film this scene, it was midnight, and it was a freezing February night, and on our first attempt, the shot came out perfectly, and everyone cheered in a euphoric way.”
There’s a lot of dramatic irony and uncanny terror in the film, and also some bloodsoaked murders, but Payne Santos wants audiences to know, there are not too many murders. “Compared to other slasher films, this actually has a very low kill count. The film is moreso a psychological thriller.”
It Cuts Deep was initially scheduled to premiere in March, but delays due to COVID-19 pushed the release back. Apposite to the genre and archetypal films, It Cuts Deep will be released on Friday, November 13th, for a limited time theatrically, and then released on VOD by Dark Sky Media/ MPI Films. The theatrical release can be found here.