An analysis to accompany SO1EO7 by Oana-Maria Mazilu.
Somewhere in between discussing the success of Blue Towel Productions and a preview to my Borat rant, in our podcast episode Ann-Marie asked me whether Dracula Untold (Gary Shore, 2014) was shot in Romania and whether the backdrop looked like Romania. As I mentioned, Dracula Untold was primarily shot in Northern Ireland and in terms of making it look like Transylvania, it looks like anywhere and nowhere. In this article, I would like to expand on this answer and further consider the subject of location in relation to the digital technology used in Dracula Untold.
As much as some Romanian audiences, myself included, appreciated that Dracula Untold had integrated more of Vlad Țepeș in Dracula’s origin story, the purpose of this film was never to provide audiences with more information about Romanian history. The purpose of Dracula Untold was to make money and draw audiences in by banking on the Dracula brand, offering entertainment and spectacle. How the film banked on the Dracula brand may have been one of its primary issues. Universal, and the world’s most famous vampire, have their roots in the horror genre. However, Ann-Marie was correct to note that this Dracula had all the characteristics of a superhero. I too would argue that Dracula Untold is more a superhero movie, rather than a horror. Universal aimed to revive its classical monsters at a time when cinema screens were/are dominated by the likes of X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer, 2014), Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, 2014). So what if vampirism were a superpower? Just like Peter Parker, what if Vlad got bit, gained superpowers, and became your not so friendly neighbourhood vampire warlord? ….Ok, so maybe not quite like Peter Parker. Still, 2014 was a peak time for the superhero genre and audiences swarmed to such movies for entertainment. Dracula Untold also aimed to bank on this audience habit, thus also needed to meet audience expectations of a superhero film. One of these expectations is the use of digital technology, as all superhero films provide such a spectacle where the technology itself is an attraction. As digital technology was anyway going to be a point of attraction in Dracula Untold, receiving a budget accordingly, it was likely more cost-effective to digitally turn Northern Ireland into Transylvania, rather than move an entire film crew to shoot in Romania. From a business and budget point of view, the financial rationale is pretty obvious. But does the location look like Transylvania? I stand by my initial answer that it could be anywhere and nowhere. To illustrate, consider the two images below, one of the Dracula Untold castle, and the other of the Royal Court of Târgoviște, Vlad Țepeș’s actual residence:
While the Bran Castle is “touristically” known as Dracula’s castle, it has little historical connection to Vlad Țepeș. The Royal Court of Târgoviște served as a residence for Țepeș, as Târgoviște was the capital of Wallachia at the time of his reign. In Dracula Untold, it is interesting to note that the CGI built Dracula Castle bears no resemblance to the Bran Castle, but perhaps the tower on the right-hand side is somewhat similar to the Chindia Tower in Târgoviște, built in the time of Vlad Țepeș’s rule. In exterior shots where landscape dominates, some viewers may recognise the rock formations of the Giant’s Causeway and the scenery of Divis and the Black Mountain. Even so, imagery in Dracula Untold is so digitally stylised, that the location could be Transylvania, Northern Ireland, or Mordor.
Dracula Untold is a film shot in Northern Ireland, but where viewers are constantly told that the action takes place in Transylvania. The message is constantly reinforced in the film’s narrative, particularly through dialogue. Numerous times dialogue refers to Transylvania, to Vlad’s people as Transylvanians, and other locations in Romania, such as the Cozia monastery. Without these ques, a general audience would have difficulty in gaining a sense of space by relying solely on the visuals. Thus, a very fictionalised and digitally enhanced Transylvania is depicted, but I would argue that this does not disturb a general audience. Audiences may not have prior knowledge of the specific locations in Northern Ireland or the real Transylvanian landscape but will know that Dracula comes from Transylvania, whatever this place looks like.