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He may be a master of horror and superhero flicks but Sam Raimi is nothing like you'd expect.

Immaculately coiffed and dressed in a dapper black suit and tie, the 49-year-old hardly resembles our image of a successful Hollywood director.

"I dress in a suit and tie because my father explained to me years ago that you should always dress in a manner that conveys the level of respect you want to convey to the people you work with," he explains, not mentioning that he often wears the same apparel to the set, in a kind of homage to Alfred Hitchcock.

Coming from a close-knit Jewish family, Raimi is very family-oriented, even in his work. He regularly co-writes his films with his elder brother, Ivan, also a practising doctor, while his younger brother Ted acts in them.

Ivan officially co-wrote Spider-Man 3, though his input has been most significant in their writing of horror films, and their latest is Drag Me To Hell.

The idea for the film came about years ago when they wrote a short story, The Curse, inspired by their Aunt Minnie.

"Our mother used to threaten us that if we didn't behave she would have our Aunt Minnie put her evil eye on us," says Raimi. "I never wanted to know what the evil eye was but my mother was able to control us with that, and with her terrible pinch. When we were out in the car she would reach back with her hand and it was like a nightmare shot - 'whoa! the hand is coming'."

When the brothers came to write their screenplay they wondered what would happen if someone really had the evil eye and used it. An old gypsy woman, Mrs Ganusch (Lorna Raver), certainly does. When Alison Lohman's ambitious loans officer refuses an extension on her loan in a Los Angeles bank, she conjures a curse which proves impossible to lift.

"It's a morality tale about a person who chose greed and the punishment that ensues," explains Raimi.

The punishment, as in his debut feature, The Evil Dead and its sequel, Evil Dead II, is intended to be hilarious and thrilling rather than horrific, and it's a style not dissimilar to Peter Jackson's early funny horror movie, Bad Taste (1987), also his debut feature.

"I get scared in horror movies, they affect me and I get too freaked-out," Raimi admits. "I can take one once in a while - I loved The Others as it was so brilliant and haunting. But I don't watch slasher movies; I don't like realistic stories of people killing other people. The humour enables me to watch the horror. The first A Nightmare on Elm Street movie [1984] had a lot of humour. It really gave back a lot of energy, it energised the audience and that's what I aim to do. When it's working it's so much fun, like nothing the audience has ever experienced. It's spooky, it's giddy and you're all in it together. Unfortunately with this movie it's more like 'We're all gonna be slaughtered together!"' he cackles.

As one might imagine, the mild-mannered director faced getting his point across to his actors with some trepidation. And it didn't help that his star, Ellen Page, could no longer do the film. So when he approached Alison Lohman (Matchstick Men, White Oleander, Flicka) a similarly petite fragile-looking actress with hidden reserves of strength, he had to convince her.

"I was at first afraid to tell Alison all the things I had to do to her, like 'while digging up the corpse you may get blisters, you'll be in the rain, you'll get a little cold, you have to get a little dirty'. And what if I tell her I'm going to bury her alive in 800 pounds of mud? I slowly told her everything she'd have to go through. She went 'Aha, really? All right, okay," and I kept thinking I sounded insane. 'A fly goes up your nose but only for a little while. Then it's gonna come out your nostril,' or 'the woman vomits maggots in your mouth but then everything's fine for a few minutes'."

Raimi needn't have worried, as Lohman was keen. "My fiance is a huge horror movie buff and he was the one who inspired me to do it," she says of director David Neveldine (Crank) whom she had met on her previous sci-fi action movie, Gamer.

Still, filming was never easy. "I only got four hours sleep a night and I need 10, so it was very intense," she adds. "It was probably the most exhausting film I've done."

It was exhausting for everyone in fact, because Raimi had to considerably downsize his scope - though not to the extent of The Evil Dead, which cost a mere US$350,000 ($552,000) compared to the $350 million of Spider-Man 3.

"On big films like Spider-Man it's great to work with the finest technicians and if you need a 120-piece orchestra to bring out the moment when the hero comes soaring into the sun, you can afford to do that. Here it was more like me on the kazoo. We had a very tight schedule so had to get back to basics. Many times when the sun was about to set, we'd have to get the shot no matter what, as we were out of there the next day. I was forced to think about what I really needed and to just concentrate on the point of story at that moment. I was surprised how I really only needed the actor communicating a simple idea. I didn't need those other seven shots."

Although Raimi has not personally directed a film in New Zealand, with his production partner, Rob Tapert, he has produced many Auckland-based productions ranging from television series like the early Xena: Warrior Princess, and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys to the current The Legend of the Seeker, Boogeyman and 30 Days of Night.

"Originally back in the early 90s when we did Hercules and Xena it was tremendous," Raimi says. "New Zealand provided a lot of unique landscapes that are so close to one another - the ocean, lava pits, beautiful forests, rivers and the rocky bluffs.

"Since then the Lord of the Rings films have come out and the world has seen New Zealand on the giant screen through the brilliant eye of Peter Jackson. But even if it's a little less new and you can't get as much value for the American dollar as you used to, it's still worth it because the landscape is so fantastic and the film crews are excellent.

"We have so many people we trust, key people in makeup, hair, wardrobe and production. We've worked with them for years and you can't beat the experience they bring to a production."

LOWDOWN
Who: Sam Raimi, director

Born: October 23, 1959, Franklin, Michigan

What: His return to horror films, Drag Me to Hell. Opens July 23

Key films: The Evil Dead (1981); Crimewave (1985); Evil Dead II; (1987); Darkman (1990); Army of Darkness (1993); Quick and the Dead, (1995); A Simple Plan (1998); The Gift (2000); Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), Spider-Man 3 (2007)

Also: Raimi has a New Zealand connection via longtime producing partner Rob Tapert. As well as having based TV shows like Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess and more recently Legend of the Seeker, the pair and their Ghosthouse Pictures company have filmed horror movies Boogeyman and 30 Days of Night here.