This macabre crime thriller from Lon Chaney is not strictly a horror movie, but the trappings and characterisation of the lead role lend the film a disturbing edge that would fit comfortably within the horror genre.
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Lon Chaney in The Penalty (1920) [Allen & Unwin]The Penalty (1920)


(Goldwyn) 70mins. (7 reels) BW. Silent. US. Re-released by MGM in 1926.
Credits: Dir: Wallace Worsley; Prod: Samuel Goldwyn; Sc: Charles Kenyon & Philip Lonergan; Ph: Dan Short; Ed: Frank S. Hall & J.G. Hawks. From a novel by Gouverneur Morris.
Cast: Lon Chaney (Blizzard), Claire Adams (Barbara), Kenneth Harlan (Dr. Wilmont), Charles Clary (Dr. Ferris), Ethel Grey Terry (Rose), James Mason (Frisco Pete), Edouard Trebaol (bubbles), Milton Ross (Lichtenstein), Wilson Hummel, Cesare Gravina.

It is still worth stressing that throughout Lon Chaney's screen career of over 150 films, only a handful of these can be classified as "pure" horror movies. The others usually cast the star as a profoundly macabre character in an otherwise routine melodrama. Needless to say that during the pinnacle of his success Chaney's characterisations became the focal point of his films and were measured by the critics and the public alike solely upon Chaney's performances. In THE PENALTY Chaney creates one of his most vile characterisations, but in modern appraisals of his work it counts as one of his most unheralded performances.

A young boy is injured in a tragic accident and Dr. Ferris, (Charles Clary), an inexperienced surgeon, unnecessarily amputates the childs' legs. Twenty years later, the boy has grown up to be known as "Blizzard", the merciless ruler of the San Francisco underworld. Federal Secret Service Agent Lichtenstein believes that Blizzard and his assortment of thugs and dope fiends are hatching a plot so insidious that it will endanger the entire city, so he plants an undercover agent named Rose, (Ethel Grey Terry) into Blizzard's fold to try and discover the criminal mastermind's plan.
Lon Chaney in The Penalty (1920) [MGM]Meanwhile Dr. Ferris has become a highly respected surgeon and his daughter, Barbara, (Claire Adams), is trying to establish her reputation as a sculptor. Blizzard realises his opportunity to have revenge on the doctor when Barbara advertises for a sculptor's model to pose for a work titled "Satan After the Fall", the ad continues,"... if you think you look like Satan, apply at the studio of Barbara Ferris".
Blizzard exclaims "Before I'm through, they'll think I'm the Devil himself!"
Over the next few weeks Blizzard builds up a rapport with Barbara, much to the annoyance of her suitor Dr. Wilmont, (Kenneth Harlan), her father's assistant.
While Federal Agent Rose is hunting for clues, she overhears Blizzard briefing his cohorts on a plan to arrange for 10 000 criminals to filter through the city and begin a reign of terror. This will force the police into the suburbs and leave the city free for Blizzard and his men to loot. However, Blizzard's more immediate plan is to kidnap Barbara Ferris and force Dr. Ferris to graft Dr. Wilmot's "superb" legs onto Blizzard's stumps. Ferris agrees to Blizzard's demands, but instead operates on a contusion at the base of the mastercriminal's skull that has been applying pressure to his brain. After the surgery, Blizzard declares his repentance:- "In my madness I was ruled by evil. Now I intend to do good". Unfortunately, soon afterward one of Blizzard's ruthless henchmen shoots him, and as the film title conveys, his death is the penalty for his life of crime.

Lon Chaney in The Penalty (1920) [MGM]Although the plot remains melodramatic, Blizzard's condition and his plethora of ropes, pulleys and trap doors through which he travels about his lair lends the story a macabre edge. Lon Chaney had to act on his knees as the role demanded a harness that strapped both the actor's legs behind him. This led to severe back strain and could only be used for short periods at a time, but even under this physical pain Chaney could still clamber up the ropes with amazing agility.

Director Wallace Worsley would again direct Chaney in a painful harness for his role as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), however, THE PENALTY remains as one of the stars' career milestones. .
There are very few actors who would endure so much suffering for the sake of realism, but Lon Chaney was a unique man and THE PENALTY remains one of his finest hours.

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