When it comes to October, there may be nothing more fitting than a good silent horror film or thriller. Throughout film history, various names and faces have come onto the screen and never truly left. Chaplin’s mustache and his Little Tramp character. Harold Lloyd and his thick black glasses. And horror films have their icons as well. Karloff’s impenetrable face and Lugosi’s menacing accent and feline features are just a few of the genre’s most iconic actors. However, there may not be a single more iconic on screen entity than the man of a billion faces, Lon Chaney Sr.
Willing to do anything and everything for a role, Chaney became best known for his startling turn in the brilliant Phantom Of The Opera, but throughout his career he made his name on going deep into a character, and even deeper into altering his appearance for the said character. Turns in films like the lost London After Midnight prove that when one has a nightmare, the man chasing you down that dark hallway will forever be portrayed by him.
However, none of his performances are as potent as the one found within the classic silent film, The Penalty, now available on Blu-ray thanks to Kino.
The film is one of Chaney’s many crime pictures, but is about as frightening as any straight horror films the director thrust himself into. Based on a novel by Gouverneur Morris, the film follows the story of a man, fueled by revenge, looking to strike back at the man who took his legs as a child. Blizzard is his name, and crime is his game, and after becoming a crime boss, he kidnaps the fiancé of the doctor’s daughter, only to put his legs upon himself. Featuring one of Chaney’s most fearless performances, finding his legs bound inside of buckets at the bottom of the costume, Kino has once again knocked out of the park the transfer of a silent feature film.
Chaney is the film’s biggest star here. As menacing a performance as he’d ever give, he is one of cinema’s most despicable and brutal crime lords, and while the makeup and costuming gets much of the love here, Chaney’s ability to perform through all of that is absolutely thrilling. You never feel as though he’s hiding behind these things like so many actors tend to do but instead becoming more and more thrilled and alive due to these additions. Chaney’s face was made for this type of film, and while the supporting performances don’t come close to Chaney’s ferocity or vigor, his control over the picture seems fitting both historically and thematically.
Co-starring Charles Clary, Ethel Grey Terry and Kenneth Harlan, the film’s supporting cast is definitely skilled, though. The relationship between the characters played by Terry and Chaney is admittedly off putting and quite frightening, and both Clary and Harlan ultimately can’t hold a candle to the star’s turn, but they do offer up a bit of an emotional core.
However, the film is a far greater historical piece than a feature film. The Red Scare hit just the year prior to this film’s 1920 release, and director Wallace Worsley used this film to play as some sort of meditation upon that fact. A pure anti-communist picture, the film won’t play directly as that for those looking for a quick scare or to learn more about who star Lon Chaney truly was, but for those with any knowledge of early 1900 history will find this to be quite an intriguing little time capsule. A brooding and chilling crime tale, the film is returned to the color-tinted state originally intended for the picture, and it is given new life thanks to this fantastic new Blu-ray.
Leading the way, besides the brilliant color-tinted transfer (recently restored by George Eastman House) or the dual musical scores, is a video tour of none other than Chaney’s own makeup case as well as the costume he wore during this very film. This is easily one of this year’s greatest supplements, giving the viewer a thrilling look into just what made Lon Chaney the icon that he’d ultimately become. There is also a newsreel clip giving us the only remaining footage of Chaney’s turn in The Miracle Man, as well as a one reel western from 1914 entitled By The Sun’s Rays, which stars Chaney.
Very few actors or actresses have become as synonymous with an era quite like Lon Chaney and silent film. An actor born and raised to bring to life the various characters that he would ultimately forever engrain into the minds of cinephiles around the globe, The Penalty is not only a masterpiece of crime cinema, it’s also one of the most haunting and devastating performances from an actor whose filmography is full of turns that would also fit that bill. Simply put, this is something any thriller junkie needs to toss onto their shelf.