LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Low-budget horror movie "The Devil Inside" scared up a surprisingly strong $34.5 million in U.S. and Canadian ticket sales to take possession of the weekend box office crown, according to studio estimates released on Sunday.
The better-than-expected performance for "Devil," coming despite terrible reviews and poor reactions from some filmgoers, knocked Tom Cruise's two-time champion "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" to second place. Both movies were distributed by Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom Inc.
Critics blasted "Devil," with just 7 percent of reviews coming in positive on aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes. Filmgoers were sharply divided. Polling from audience survey firm CinemaScore showed 16 percent gave the movie an "A," while 19 percent awarded it an "F." Two-thirds rated the film a C or below.
Still, the movie blew past Paramount's projections for modest weekend sales of around $8 million and other industry forecasts of $20 million-plus. The studio acquired the film for just $1 million and described the movie as "polarizing" audiences.
"As many people loved it as were disturbed by it," said Don Harris, president of domestic distribution for Paramount. He credited the huge opening-weekend take to a marketing strategy similar to the studio's push for its blockbuster, low-budget "Paranormal Activity" franchise.
"The marketing campaign was very much like 'Paranormal.' It was online, trying to find the younger moviegoer, the fans for this genre," he said.
"Devil" tells the story of a woman who investigates her mother's exorcisms. Indeed, the movie appealed to a younger crowd, with 59 percent of filmgoers under age 25, Paramount said. Fifty-four percent of the audience were males.
With "Paranormal Activity," the third movie in the series hit theaters last fall and has pulled in a whopping $203 million globally on a $5 million production budget. The studio just announced a fourth "Paranormal" film for this fall.
Meanwhile, Paramount is basking in the success of Cruise's fourth "Mission: Impossible" movie, which led domestic box-office charts the past two weekends. This weekend, "MI4" took in $20.5 million at domestic theaters. It has racked up $458.1 million around the globe since debuting last month.
"Devil" was the only new movie released nationwide over the weekend as January is typically a slow period for movie-going. The horror flick's appeal helped boost the weekend 29 percent over the same period last year, according to the box office division of Hollywood.com. Sales for all movies in North America (United States and Canada) totaled $144 million.
In third place for the weekend, detective sequel "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" collected $14.1 million at domestics theaters.
Rounding out the top five domestically were adult thriller "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and family film sequel "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked." "Dragon Tattoo" ended the weekend with $11.3 million while "Chipwrecked" pulled in $9.5 million.
Time Warner Inc unit Warner Bros. released "Sherlock Holmes." Sony Corp's movie studio distributed "Dragon Tattoo." News Corp unit 20th Century Fox released "Chipwrecked."
Reporting By Lisa Richwine; Editing by Eric Beech and Cynthia Osterman