Over a year has passed between the Cannes 2012 premiere of Franck Khalfoun's infamous remake of Maniac and the film's On Demand release this month... such a long stretch, in fact, that I was able to buy the soundtrack album many months before I even got a chance to see the film itself. The whole experience gave me multiple jolts of deja vu... and I'll explain why.
You see, back in 1980, when Joe Lustig's original Maniac was being discussed in hushed tones among my friends (we were all too young to see the film in theaters), the soundtrack LP was being carried by Varese Sarabande records, and mail-ordering a copy from the back pages of Fangoria was as close as I could get to experiencing the actual movie. Even the cover art (that iconic image of a grubby, knife-wielding goon clutching a bloody, freshly-scalped fistful of blonde locks) filled me with dread, and the movie stills and synopsis on the back sleeve added to Maniac's dangerous mystique as I listened endlessly to the nightmarish but often melancholy score by Jay Chattaway, enhanced by chilling excerpts from Joe Spinell's eccentric monologues throughout the film. Since then, I've since watched Maniac dozens of times, on video and in the theater... but the film I saw wasn't nearly as scary as version that screened in my young mind while listening to that soundtrack in a darkened room.
Jump forward to last fall, as reviews of the remake began to pour in, most leaning toward the positive – with a particular amount of praise being heaped upon the moody score by a composer known only as “Rob.” While the film still awaited wider distribution in North America, the soundtrack album became available early this year... and it was deja vu all over again. I picked it up immediately, and found myself quickly transported back to the '80s by Rob's vintage instrumentation and recording style. Rumor has it that Rob is linked to the French electronic music duo Air, and after hearing that band's moody, warm and thoroughly retro score to Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides, I wouldn't be surprised if that rumor turned out to be true.
If you closely associate old-school electronic music with horror movies from the late '70s and early '80s, you'll understand what creative spring Rob's dipping into here. Many critics have compared his work on Maniac to Cliff Martinez's amazing music for Drive, and while I do agree that Rob can faithfully recreate that neon-and-chrome '80s synth vibe, the orchestrations in Maniac are far moodier, layering hypnotic drones, pulses and almost subliminal murmurs beneath haunting melodic motifs, and breaking through with heart-stopping shocks when needed. There's a warm organic thread running through this score, beginning immediately with the haunting prologue “Doll,” which sets the dreamlike tone for the album by layering a pensive piano theme over a throbbing, buzzing undercurrent, emphasizing the distorted humanity at the heart of an otherwise cold-blooded killing machine. The sweep of the music expands with the simple but massive chords of "Haunted," the film's main theme, which captures the moody soundscapes once summoned by artists like Tangerine Dream and Vangelis and strongly recalls Giorgio Moroder's 1982 score for Cat People. Take a listen:
We hear this central motif in multiple variants, including a melancholy piano version laced with deep, dark buzzing tones, and a dreamier alternate take which drenches the chords in heavy reverb; the same basic melody is flipped to the dark side for "Double Trouble," stripped of rhythms in the pulsating "Haunted Sequence," and given an almost innocent, ethereal quality in “Floor.”
While lighter elements do come forward in pieces like "Bells,” mid-to-low-range tones dominate the sonic landscape, using the glassier touches mainly to add urgency to tracks like "Headache," which layers high-pitched patterns over a bubbling sub-bass pulse, offering a brief piano interlude before dropping a few powerful shock stabs; "Headache City" pushes the dissonance even further with an agonized electronic wail to accompany the blurred and horrific visions that torment Frank, the title character played by Elijah Wood. While many are less than two minutes in length, interlaced cues like "Floor," “Maze” and "Slow Machine" are more tone poems than stand-alone pieces, but each one represents an odd beat in the nightmare dance between Frank, his inner demons, and his hapless victims. For one of the film's most memorable and disturbing cues, Rob channels Philip Glass-style minimalism in the eerie organ figures and sampled female choir of "Wedding Maze,” which figured prominently in the advance trailers for the film.
If you find the following light rock number “Boum” and the breezy closing pop track "Juno" (featuring vocals by Chloë Alper) a bit out of place here, bear in mind the original Maniac included several disco tunes fitting its own era (the goofy song “Goin' to a Showdown” was often featured in the trailer), so even in that respect this record's a close parallel to the original, albeit giving the nightlife vibe a 21st century upgrade.
You know that whole feeling of deja vu I mentioned earlier? It didn't end with my enjoyment of Rob's soundtrack, or even with the VOD debut of Khalfoun's film: when I discovered that the fine folks at Mondo were releasing the new score on vinyl – just as they did for Chattaway's version in 2011 – I knew I had to pounce on a copy and bring the Maniac listening experience full-circle. When I have that platter securely in hand, it'll just be me, the music, the creepy album art (Mondo's back cover is a spot-on tribute to the 1980 Varese LP) and a darkened room once again... but now with a new musical and visual interpretation, and hopefully some creepy new memories to go with it.
Speaking of memories, here's a quick flashback to Jay Chattaway's 1980 score in the form of the skin-crawling ambient cue “Blast Him,” which accompanies Tom Savini's legendary death scene. Listen and you'll hear some of the stylistic connections to Rob's version.