(Reuters) - Vampires and werewolves lured moviegoers to theaters this weekend as the fourth "Underworld" film topped domestic box office charts and brought in an estimated $38.8 million around the world.
"Underworld: Awakening" stars Kate Beckinsale as a vampire leading the charge in a battle against humans trying to drive her species and the werewolves to extinction.
The fourth movie opened stronger than two of the three earlier films in the franchise, which opened in 2003. "Awakening" pulled in $25.4 million at North American (U.S. and Canadian) theaters from Friday through Sunday, plus $13.4 million from 36 international markets, distributor Sony said on Sunday.
Playing in 3,078 domestic locations, the film's weekend sales finished "at the high end of where we hoped," said Rory Bruer, president of worldwide distribution for Sony Pictures. Audiences were eager to see Beckinsale return to the lead role, he said. She had starred in the first two films but skipped the third.
"Awakening" is the first "Underworld" movie in 3D and cost about $70 million to produce. The movie fell flat with critics as just 24 percent gave a positive review on aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes. But audiences polled by survey firm CinemaScore awarded the movie an A-.
In second place, World War Two story "Red Tails" far exceeded studio forecasts with $19.1 million domestically.
"Red Tails" stars Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. in a drama about Tuskegee Airmen -- a black pilot group in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War Two. Producer George Lucas paid the film's $58 million production cost plus marketing expenses, and distributor 20th Century Fox had forecast $8 million to $10 million in domestic ticket sales for weekend.
"Never in our wildest dreams did we think we could pull off a number like this," said Chris Aronson, senior vice president for domestic distribution at 20th Century Fox. He said audiences clearly enjoyed the film, giving it an A grade in polling by CinemaScore. Critics' reviews on Rotten Tomatoes came in at 34 percent positive.
Last weekend's winner, thriller "Contraband" starring Mark Wahlberg, finished its second weekend in theaters in third place, grabbing $12.2 million domestically.
"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," a drama about a boy trying to make sense of his father's death on 9/11, landed in fourth place with $10.5 million. The movie had opened in a small number of theaters on Christmas but expanded nationwide this weekend. The film stars Thomas Horn as the boy and Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock as his parents.
In fifth place, Steven Soderbergh-directed spy tale "Haywire" took in $9 million domestically, just beating distributor Relativity Media's projection of about $8 million.
"Haywire" features mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano as an operative who is double-crossed and becomes the target of assassins. While critics praised the film with an 82 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, audiences were not impressed. The film earned a D+ rating from CinemaScore.
Elsewhere this weekend, two movies that won Golden Globe awards last week expanded to more theaters.
Silent film "The Artist," winner for best musical or comedy film, doubled last weekend's sales with $2.4 million after moving into in 662 theaters from 446 last week.
"The Iron Lady," which won Meryl Streep best actress at the Globes for her role as Margaret Thatcher, dropped 32 percent from a week ago despite expanding by more than 800 theaters to 1,076 locations. The movie took in $3.7 million over the weekend.
The movie division of Sony Corp distributed "Underworld." Time Warner Inc unit Warner Bros. released "Extremely Loud." News Corp unit 20th Century Fox distributed "Red Tails." The privately held Weinstein Co. released "The Artist" and "The Iron Lady." Privately held Relativity Media released "Haywire" in the United States, and Alliance Films distributed the movie in Canada.
Reporting By Lisa Richwine; Editing by Bill Trott