Separating the good guys from the bad guys isn't easy in Sam Raimi's "Drag Me To Hell," but you can tell a lot by the cars they drive.

There's an apparently wholesome yuppie couple (Justin Long, Alison Lohman) who seem nice enough on the surface, but they drive around in Prius, which in Raimi's universe can spell trouble.

Then there's a grudge-holding, curse-dealing old hag. She seems certifiably evil, but she drives a gigantic, 1973 Oldsmobile (actually Raimi's own ride), the color of her rotten teeth.

Definitely a positive sign.

"Hey, I'm from Detroit," laughs Raimi. "In my movies, I always put a big old Detroit automobile.

I once had a foreign critic ask me why my movies always have silly, stupid, large American cars. Because I love them. I love the industry. So the cars are in my pictures."

This may go against the grain of a greener America, but that suits Raimi, who's "Drag Me To Hell" delivers the horror goods within the confines of a PG-13 rating - a seeming rebuke to a genre given over to graphic torture sequences.

"I'm aware of that trend in horror right now, but I haven't seen enough of those movies to comment on them. Actually, I don't think I've seen any of them. I wasn't trying to prove anything, or teach anybody anything," he said.

"I was just out to make a movie that would entertain an audience. My brother [Ivan] and I had written some moments that were suspenseful, that had some good jumps, and I thought I could give them a wild, funny perverse energy that could tickle the audience."

Wild, funny, perverse energy - that describes the variable tone of Raimi's "Evil Dead" series, the low-budget flicks that made him legend among horror buffs and a commodity in Hollywood, where he went on to head up the "Spider-Man" franchise.

For Raimi, "Drag Me To Hell" is a return to his roots, a chance to say thanks to the "small, devoted" following that continues to enjoy the "Evil Dead" titles.

"I love to be with a good horror crowd when it's seeing the right kind of horror movie, and I hope 'Drag Me To Hell' is the right kind. The fans come in with open arms, ready for anything. They're the best movie audience in the world. They generate their own kind of electricity. The just want to jump, laugh, and scream together."

They also want to participate, Raimi says, in the psychological construction of the thing that's scaring them. That's why explicit horror movies may be missing the essence of the genre.

"What I love about the filmmakers of old is that they let the audience use their imaginations to build their own monster in their heads. I tried to borrow some of that here, Robert Wise in 'The Haunting,' Jacques Tournier's 'Night of the Demon.'

"Those guys had great respect for the audience, and knew how to make them an active participant in making the horror work."

Right now, Raimi is an active participant in making the next "Spider-Man" movie work. He's collaborating (with David Lindsay) on the script for movie number four, which should be finished by late June.

"I've had conversations with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, and they're ready to jump aboard. But I need the script to be great. I'm scared, and excited, and my goal is to make this the best 'Spider-man' movie yet." *