Italian writer-director Alberto Cavallone purposefully latched onto the loincloths of early-1980s Stone Age cinema with Master of the World, aka Conqueror of the World — now on Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome, a premier boutique imprint that specializes in rescuing unremembered genre curiosities. (VS subscribers received this title as part of their January shipment, and the title is now available for wider purchase.)
Master settles into its subgenre somewhere between the panache of Academy Award winners like the French-Canadian Quest for Fire and piffling vanity projects like Ringo Starr’s Caveman. (There are also rather liberal similarities to Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children novel series, which included The Clan of the Cave Bear.)
The story concerns Bok (Sven Kruger), a caveman initially scorned and shunned by his clan for his sensitivity and smarts. But Bok’s gradual evolution of his strategy, sexuality and savagery moves him ever closer to the titular designation. Setting aside some Bill Kristol-ish narration at the beginning (and a more-on-that-later countdown at the end), Master unfolds exclusively in growls, grunts, squeals, screams and whatever indiscernible-but-structured gibberish Bok speaks by film’s end. The ADR sessions for this must have been a blast.
Bok is the only character with a clear name. But Master of the World will confuse only those who remain perplexed by homo sapiens’ capacity to cave heads in for the sake of conquest … and the appeal of doing more of that once it’s proven successful. Cavallone’s film often feels like Robert Rodriguez’s episodes of The Book of Boba Fett in that someone’s homestead never feels far away from the camera and in that it always looks noticeably cheaper than its counterparts; to wit here, the stock footage appears unretouched by Vinegar Syndrome’s restoration, which adds to its hilarious lack of visual congruity.
Never before available on DVD, Master has been freshly remastered for this Blu-ray presentation in 4K from its original 35mm original negative and offered in “prehistoric mono.” Among the more impressive elements of this restoration is a clearer presentation of a generously chunky synth score by composer Alberto Baldan Bembo. There’s also one stunning long shot of cavemen skittering over the mountains that feels like a glorious accident relative to the rest of this film’s specific photography, nevertheless presented as immaculately as possible given this particular catalog title’s cachet.
Vinegar Syndrome calls Master an “ultra gory,” “high sleaze” and “low rent” entry in the caveman genre. Frankly, that’s overselling it on the first two points, at least relative to the expectations and experiences of anyone who would willingly subscribe to Vinegar Syndrome’s releases. But it doesn’t mean that the occasional moments of slow decapitation — tools weren’t very sharp yet! — and subsequent brain consumption are a bust. Behind-the-scenes interviews reveal that the prop heads were filled with lamb brains that sat on set for hours before filming; Cavallone convinced his performers to act like they realistically craved this as a consumable when, in reality, “someone threw up later, perhaps.”
As for the sleaze, Robert Sammelin’s limited-edition embossed slipcover promises salacious caveman copulation that does reflect a bit from the film … but Cavallone cuts from the depicted foreplay to long, grainy stock-footage scene of what appears to be two herons procreating. The longing look that Bok’s lover shoots at him is admittedly an intriguing anachronism of intimacy — and perhaps reflective of Cavallone’s appreciable subtext that women, as they always have been, are the ones who really carry the culture forward. But why not show brains as enjoyably fucked out as they are scooped out? On a point of “low rent,” a chewed, holistic paste meant to heal Bok’s wounds resembles mushy guacamole, so … yes.
You also get the feeling some animals were harmed during the making of this film. Don’t be lured into disappointment by the man in a bear suit early on in the film. Cavallone may fancy himself above what Italian exploitation emeriti like Ruggero Deodato, Umberto Lenzi or Enzo Castellari might have done with similar material. But he’s not above filming a bunch of swarthy men wrestling with a minimally controlled, and possibly drugged, real bear (or, more amusingly, German Shepherds passed off as wolves in a transition from stock footage).
In the moment, all of these Stupid Human vs. Animal Tricks elevate Master to a level akin to Roar, the ne plus ultra of wondering whether you’re actually going to see an animal kill an actor. The rest is generally more of a whimper, punctuated by intermittently interesting gore. At 75 minutes, this might have been fun. At 105, it’s simply overindulgent, and a final moment with what seems like a bomb countdown feels like Cavallone taking nearly two hours to make a connection that took Stanley Kubrick all of a few minutes in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Is it unfair to invoke Kubrick for something like this or almost anything Vinegar Syndrome might send in its many mystery boxes? Sure. On the other, Cavallone is clearly trying to adulterate his film’s absurdities with philological and anthropological artistry here, so it’s a valid point to address. Master of the World is best when it feels like the last loopy signoff broadcast before an apocalypse’s final bell, less so when attempting to be Cavallone’s Cro-Magnon opus.
Extras include: “Quest for Survival,” a convivial conversation with assistant director Stefano Pomilia, whose father helped finance the film. Pomilia at least admits the film lacks a “realistic depiction of Stone Age intercourse” and expresses surprise that it took 39 years for a proper U.S. release of Master of the World. There is also “200,000 Years Ago,” a conversation with Cavallone biographer Davide Pulici, who advises that should you check out anything from Cavallone’s porn phase, make it the “bonkers” Baby Sitter. He also addresses Cavallone’s relatively unloved legacy in the Italian film industry, Cavallone’s on-set clashes with his collaborators, and the quizzical lack of an Italian theatrical release for Master of the World.