Easily one of the best documentaries that I've run across in recent years, "Dark Days" is a fascinating piece with an equally remarkable story behind it. As the documentary opens, we learn that there is an underground colony living in the train tunnels of New York City. Choosing to live down there to escape from what they have to face in the outside world, they build their own homes and some even have electricity and furniture.
Director Singer was originally interested in this culture after seeing them on a news broadcast. Eventually, he came back with filming equipment and then began living with them, capturing their day-to-day life with his black and white camera for two years. Fellow dwellers were even recruited as the film's sound crew.
Some have spent 10 or more years of their lives living in the underground tunnels. Many seem to be pleased with their surroundings - "I don't consider myself homeless, I've got a home", reasons one. Yet, looking in, one has to see some of the risks - getting robbed, attacked or even oncoming trains. These people do not seem to be crazy or mental, though. In fact, they mainly seem like sane and mildly intelligent people who ran into severe problems with drugs that sent them into a downward spiral, chasing that original high.
Some describe their situation with humor; one talks about making 60 or 70 dollars in a day from gathering cans and bottles, then having enough to live on for a few days. A couple of the residents move in with one another and start to become an underground version of "The Odd Couple". Others discuss the drama of their above-ground lives - one man talks about his wife leaving him when he unfortunately chose drugs over her. The people that the film covers are definitely characters; people with an off-beat sense of humor and outlook about their lives. Singer shows a great deal of respect for his subjects.
One might have an underlying sense that all of this is going to end badly. Major cities are attempting to move the homeless population out of underground areas and, it turns out, New York is no different. The city and the train company decide that the time has come to force the underground community out of the place that many of them have called home for years.
Yet, it doesn't all end poorly. Homeless rights groups come forward and find the population of this underground society new homes. The final scenes of a woman finding four solid walls and a bed of her own are powerful and uplifiting, as are other clips of these characters discussing the pride of maintaining their new residence. For the past 84 minutes, Singer has taken us through the highs and lows of these people's lives, showed us their struggle and let us know them as people with hopes and dreams.
VIDEO: "Dark Days" is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Filmed in black & white (on 16mm), the documentary has a rough, gritty look. Yet, it's certainly quite watchable and often exceptional looking for a low-budget documentary. Sharpness and detail are decent - there are some moments in the tunnels that are dark and don't contain much visual information at all, but there are other "tunnel" sequences that look to be fairly well-lit and offer moderate definition.
The main worry during the film was print flaws, but suprisingly, there really weren't that many, considering the film's budget and origins. Some scenes displayed small scratches and marks, as well as some minor speckles. On the other hand, some scenes seemed clean and free of such problems. The entire film is visibly grainy, although the level of grain varies from minor to mild. I noticed no instances of edge enhancement or pixelation. All things considered, this is a very nice transfer from Palm Pictures and probably, it's the best the film has looked.
SOUND: I was suprised that this documentary is actually presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, as many documentaries simply find it sufficent to go with the 2.0 presentation, instead. The choice of 5.1 here was a fine one, though. Although not a particularly agressive track, the use of ambient sounds and music by the surrounds heighten the experience and the emotion of the viewing experience. Audio quality was suprisingly strong, as dialogue from the interviews was captured with fine clarity and ambient sounds are particularly natural.
I'm not sure whether or not the film gained additional financing after competition in order to enhance the film's soundtrack. Either way, though, this is a very fine track that provides an enjoyable listening experience.
MENUS:: Palm has created some superb animated menus for this release, with an animated main menu with score in the background, as well as great transitions between menus.
Commentary: This is a commentary from director Marc Singer. Unfortunately, the commentary has large pauses between comments, but when Singer actually does speak, he does have some very interesting behind-the-scenes information to share. Talking about the dangers of the underground life, chatting about the history of the people on-screen and also, discussing how he was able to shoot the film down in the tunnels, Singer does provide information and insight. Some may be a bit put off by the spaces of silence during the track, but I felt it was worth a listen.
A True Independent: Making of "Dark Days": This is an extremely interesting documentary that mainly revolves around an interview with director Singer. The director discusses his original introduction to the people of the tunnel, talking about when he and some of the inhabitants thought that making a picture about their lives might allow them to rise up out of their current situation. Amazingly, Singer had never directed anything before and one section of the documentary has the owners of the camera shop he frequented discussing setting Singer up with the equipment and teaching him how to use it.
Singer's effort is all the more remarkable in terms of how many people were touched by the subject matter and decided to help him along the way, even when financing ran low and Singer actually found himself becoming one of the members of the underground population. It's touching and inspiring to see, in this documentary, how the different elements of the film materialized along the way. It's a really well-done "making-of" as well; very nicely produced and informative.
Deleted Scenes: 15 deleted scenes are presented with detailed text notes from director Marc Singer. The scenes are presented in 2.0 audio. There was a lot of footage shot for the film, but not all of it made it into the 84 minute picture. Some of these deleted scenes are equally powerful and interesting as well and are certainly worth viewing.
Life After The Tunnel: Director Marc Singer has written text notes on what has happened to the tunnel residents after the filmming ended. Some notes are extremely positive and joyful for those who have made a remarkable turn-around in their lives, while some notes are depressing and saddening for those who have passed on.
Also: Crew bios, trailer, weblinks, notes on the tunnel.
Final Thoughts: "Dark Days" is an alternately humorous, saddening, touching and fascinating picture that is a masterful documentary of the lives these people lead and the hope in their hearts for a better life. As I was writing this review, part of me wanted to say that "Dark Days" may not be for everyone, but I really don't think that's true. This is a powerful, emotional picture that is an amazing effort from director Singer. It's definitely a must-see film. Although it did fairly well in a limited theatrical release, it'll hopefully gain an even wider audience on video and DVD.
Palm Pictures has also stepped up to provide a terrific DVD; although the film's visual/audio quality is rough, the transfer provides what is likely the best the film has looked and sounded. The studio has also realized that this is certainly a film whose presentation will be aided by informative extra features that tell us further about the story. "Dark Days" is an absolute must see.