Monday, April 15, 2019

The Mystery of A. Louise Downe

There has been a fair amount of talk recently about Milicent Patrick, the Universal-International creative designer who was responsible for the look of several of the studio's 1950s monsters, though company policy dictated they be officially credited to Make-up Department head Bud Westmore. Patrick - apparently blackballed by Westmore when the photogenic Patrick was promoted as the creator of the Creature from the Black Lagoon - is the subject of a new book by Mallory O'Meara, THE LADY FROM THE BLACK LAGOON: HOLLYWOOD MONSTERS AND THE LOST LEGACY OF MILICENT PATRICK (Hanover Square Press), and you can read her now-documented story there.
A similar case would seem to concern the woman principally known by the screen credit of A. Louise Downe. In case the name is unfamiliar to you (because she went by many), Downe was an associate of Florida-based fright firebrand Herschell Gordon Lewis (1926-2016), who - at the time of their meeting - was a maker of Sunshine State "nudie-cutie" features. He and she then embarked on the films for which Lewis remains most famous:  BLOOD FEAST (1963), TWO THOUSAND MANIACS! (1964), COLOR ME BLOOD RED (1965), and so on, through 1972's THE GORE GORE GIRLS. In other words, the foundation blocks of "gore" cinema.

So, what was Ms. Downe's role in all this? Well, according to screen credits and published news features of the time, she wrote some of them (including BLOOD FEAST, the one that started it all*), created their horrific special makeup effects, and served as Lewis' assistant director from 1967 through 1972. She was also known to play the occasional bit part. Okay, so if we remove all of those individual duties from Herschell Gordon Lewis' films, what's left? His sterling direction of actors? His mise en scène?

* It should be mentioned that the late Randy Palmer, in his 2000 book HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS: GODFATHER OF GORE (McFarland and Company), quotes Lewis as saying that he actually wrote the script but credited Downe out of noblesse oblige when she came up with the idea of having the cannibal chef Fuad Ramses concoct his "Egyptian Feasts" as a blood sacrifice to the goddess Ishtar. Despite her extensive screen credits on his work, and her high position within his companies, she barely rates another mention in the book.
Furthermore, Downe uprooted her own life (which reportedly included three grown children) to follow Lewis to Chicago when he relocated his business there in the late 1960s. Despite her distinctive position within Lewis' work and evidence of more than a decade of open interaction with the press, she has not been heard from since roughly 1972. It was in a January 16, 1972 CHICAGO TRIBUNE article about Herschell Gordon Lewis by Clifford Terry was appended with a sizable coda (see below) acknowledging Louise Downe as "the 'Sadistic Queen' of the Chicken-Skin Flick" (a reference to one of the culinary ingredients recruited for some of the imagery she had engineered for THE WIZARD OF GORE and THE GORE GORE GIRLS).

When Terry's article was carried by other papers, as soon as immediately and later through April, all references to Downe had been expunged, save for an acknowledgement of her as the author of BLOOD FEAST. After that, she seems to have vanished off the face of the earth. The IMDb claims that she and Lewis were once married, but Lewis - who was married to Margo Ellis from 1979 onward - denied this, pretty much refusing to discuss her any further. Perhaps the most interesting detail of all is that, when their partnership ended, Herschell Gordon Lewis stopped directing movies to focus on advertising, copy writing, direct mail marketing, and writing various DIY books. He would not direct another film until 2002.

So who was this woman, who effectively stopped Herschell Gordon Lewis from directing gore films at the very moment that gore in horror cinema was becoming the vogue?

Unable to sleep last night, I found reference to her while looking for something else and ended up tracing the trail of her public life as far back as the early 1950s, when she was just a schoolgirl. Here is what I found out: Though sometimes identified as "Allison Louise Downe," she was most likely born Alma Louise Downe in the late 1930s. The Downe name is consistent throughout all her nominal reinventions, even though one early newspaper profile lists her parents as "Mr. and Mrs. Fred Camp," so it seems most likely that this was the second marriage for her mother - also named Alma (hence her daughter's nickname Bunny) - who gave birth to her at a fairly young age. It was reported that she was also a cousin of the actor Scott Brady, which would also make her an equal cousin to actor Lawrence Tierney. She attended Coral Gables High School, where she proved herself an exemplary and outgoing young student, serving as Presidents of both the Speech Club and Red Cross Councils, as well as being active in the school choir. She was also her Homeroom Chaplain, as well as a member of the Future Teachers of America and other groups. She graduated Class of '55 and then attended the University of Miami, where she majored in journalism and later psychology, while also studying acting.

MIAMI NEWS, October 31, 1952.

However, between those two educational summits, a lot happened. Bunny - a redhead whose measurements were given as 35-23-35 before her HS graduation - began entering beauty contests. She was named Miss Firefighter of 1953, an honor that won her a free trip to Cuba. She was among those who competed for the 1956 crown of Miss Miami, which could have led to bigger competitions, but won only the divisional title of Miss West Miami. Judging by her frequent appearances in the pages of THE MIAMI NEWS, she was something of a publicity hound, always on hand for attractive filler like answers to questions of the moment ("Are American Girls Too Pampered?") and home recipes. Bunny didn't complete her college education - ironically, considering her later vocation, she had to drop out of pre-med because she couldn't bear to dissect dead animals. A local gossip column from June 24, 1957 mentions her founding a Coral Gables modeling agency called Mademoiselle; then a February 1958 column mention announces the closure of Mademoiselle as its founder took up work as a receptionist at WIMZ. It was in late 1957-early 1958 that she "eloped" with her high school sweetheart Lou Mertz, a fellow journalism major. Popping up in an August 12, 1958 "Merry Go Round" column, Bunny felt sufficiently publicized to offer her space to a more generously proportioned (38-22-35) blonde and brown-eyed friend named Joyce Simpson, whose "greatest wish" was to be mentioned in the column. Her marriage to Lou Mertz didn't last, and she remarried to Petrie L. Thorne in September 1959.

1959-1960 were the years when Florida-based filmmaking came into its own, especially where primitive Adults Only features were concerned. During this period, THE MIAMI NEWS reported that Bunny Downe was working as a model and living at the Gold Dust Motel while making a movie with producer Barry Mahon called NAKED ISLAND. She was quoted as having just "flipped" for someone she met during the production named "Sepi Dubronyi" - who was, in fact, the Baron Joseph "Sepy" De Bickse Dubronyi, a sculptor and all-around adventurer of the arts who dabbled in the film business (including, in later years, DEEP THROAT - in which he actually canoodles with Linda Lovelace)  and claimed such women as Anita Ekberg, Ava Gardner, and Brigitte Bardot among his conquests; he was newly divorced during this period. We may presume that Bunny's second husband fell by the wayside as she embraced the film business and the new acquaintances that came with it, as there is no further mention of him.

According to the IMDb, Bunny appeared in a number of nudie-cuties during this period: Jerald Intrator's NAUGHTY NEW YORK (1959), Barry Mahon's PAGAN ISLAND (formerly NAKED ISLAND, 1961), Doris Wishman's DIARY OF A NUDIST (1961) and BLAZE STARR GOES NUDIST (1962), and A.A. Krovek's BABES IN THE WOODS (1962). She made her first film with Herschel Gordon Lewis in 1962, playing the female leads in both NATURE'S PLAYMATES and BOING-G-G under the aliases of Vicki Miles and Vickie Miles.

With Thomas Wood (aka Rooney Kerwin) in H.G. Lewis' SCUM OF THE EARTH.
By December 13, 1963, the former Alma Downe/Bunny Downe/Alma Mertz/Alma Thorne/Vicki Miles/Vickie Miles was interviewed as Louise Downe in Herb Kelly's MIAMI NEWS column, headline: "Pretty Model in Miami Author of Bloody Movie." In the piece, the Miami native - now living in Chicago - admits to writing BLOOD FEAST in a single week and currently working on a children's script that she hopes to submit to Walt Disney. This screenplay never got made, but that same year, Vickie Miles returned in Herschell Gordon Lewis' GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BARES (1963). She was done with acting by 1966, and knuckled down to writing and working as Lewis' assistant. The scripts she is credited with writing include THE GRUESOME TWOSOME, the Birth Control drama THE GIRL THE BODY AND THE PILL, SHE DEVILS ON WHEELS (script title: THE MOTORCYCLES), and the CLOCKWORK ORANGE-like JUST FOR THE HELL OF IT (script title: THE SMASH-IN). She took a less public approach to authoring ALLEY TRAMP (1968) and LINDA AND ABILENE (1969, scripted as ABILENE '69), but there isn't really a whole lot of story to them.

In the December 1967 issue of BACKSTAGE, Downe's official job description at Lewis' company Creative Communications, Inc. was "production manager,"  second-in-command to Lewis himself. In a March 4, 1968 piece in BOXOFFICE, Lewis referred to her as "creative director" of the company, in charge of its industrial films division. In Ruth Ratny's "Chicago Report" in the March 15, 1968 issue of BACK STAGE, Lewis anticipated that she would "add a dimension of drama to business films which is often overlooked." It was in the aftermath of this advancement that Downe began to be profiled by members of the press. On January 5, 1968, in an article titled "The Teen Counselor Who Writes Those Shocking Movie Scripts," DETROIT FREE PRESS interviewer Judy Rose revealed that Downe held a degree in psychology and had worked as a youth counselor in Florida (!), advising troubled teenage girls (!!). Though reportedly single, she had adopted three children who had become wards of the court, then in their mid- to late-teens. Other reportage from this period and later involves her in projects like SOMETHING WEIRD (1967) and THE WIZARD OF GORE (1970, when it was being filmed as THE WITCHES OF GORE with a different lead actor!), serving as Lewis' assistant, providing the celebrated gore effects, and often speaking to the press to promote them. According to John McCarty and Daniel Krogh's 1983 book THE AMAZING HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS, Louise Downe was also responsible for writing the horrific vignettes staged at the Chicago theater known as The Blood Shed in the late 1960s, which made her not only one of the very few American writers to have worked in the true tradition of the Grand Guignol - but very likely the only woman.

By September 1970, Lewis and Company were making THIS STUFF'LL KILL YA! in Oklahoma under its working title THE DEVIL WORE CLODHOPPERS. Coverage of the production appearing in THE DAILY OKLAHOMAN (September 18, 1970) identified the producers of the film as John Sezonov and his wife "Louise Downs Sezonov." One month later, THE McINTOSH COUNTY DEMOCRAT includes an update about the filming in their October 1, 1970 issue. By this town, the film had its final title - and apparently, though still shooting, it had a known 100 minute running time! The story mentions Allison Downe as associate producer and John Sezonov as production manager, but it closes with the mention that "Ultima Productions of Chicago is owned by John Sezonov and his wife, Bunny." So the Bunny nickname persisted, at least among her friends. For what it's worth, the IMDb lists Sezonov's real surname as Sezanoy - but that doesn't pull up anything in my searches.

Clearly, this was a remarkable individual - evidently born to a broken home, a self-starter, an accomplished student on many levels, an innate communicator at ease in contact with the public and the press, an entrepreneur - and also a complex young woman, someone who was able to engage with social concerns and responsibilities while working in films whose main currency was nudity and violence, both of which she personally provided. She was also, to my knowledge, the only woman to have held an executive position in a film production company in the 1960s - perhaps it wasn't seen as terribly respectable at the time, but the work she wrote and made so deliriously gruesome has somehow survived the test of a half-century of interest, and it continues to be screened to enthusiastic audiences all over the world.

If the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis are remembered for anything today - and most recently, they have been remembered to the extent of a generously annotated Blu-ray boxed set of his restored works from Arrow Video in the UK - it is for their ridiculously quotable dialogue, their absurd premises, and their disconcerting uses of history-making, taboo-shattering, brain-boggling gore. Most of these characteristics (I'll be generous by not saying "All") would fall under the job definitions of Louise Downe. Her name appears on the films, though possibly not representing her contribution in its totality - but why does any discussion of her contribution seem to have been suppressed? Why has so little credit been accorded to someone who, at the very least, was a pioneer in the realm of special makeup effects - and whose work was approximately a decade ahead of her time?

There are many possible answers to these questions, ranging from the professional to the personal. When the CHICAGO TRIBUNE's three-page profile of Herschell Gordon Lewis appeared in THE FORT LAUDERDALE NEWS the same day, its mentions of Louise Downe and her appended interview (see below) were not included. The fuller version of the main article concluded with some bickering between the two as Lewis continually derided the crude ingredients of Downe's gore effects, particularly their use of chicken skin. Downe confided to the interviewer, "You'll notice that Mr. Lewis thinks chicken skin is the Alpha and Omega of gore effects. Take it from me, it isn't. You'd think the motto of this company was 'A bowl of chicken soup will fix you right up!" It's hard to tell if this chiding was good-natured or a real bone of contention, but it certainly seems to have gone the way of the latter. Today, it is not even officially known if the former Alma Downe is alive or dead - or under what name!

Enlarge and read this rare January 16, 1972 interview with the "Sadistic Queen" of Gore - a woman who (as one Facebook friend, Robert Freese, pointed out) "was Tom Savini before Tom Savini" - and tell me her contributions to the film business, and specifically horror film history, don't bear additional investigation. It's history that may even bear rewriting.    

My thanks to Stephen Bowie and Mike McCollum for their research assistance.

(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.