The horror movie "Darkness Falls," about a vengeful spirit tormenting the town that lynched her, scared up an estimated $12.5 million in its opening weekend to debut as the No. 1 film.
Last weekend's top movie, the comedy "Kangaroo Jack," fell to second place with $11.9 million.
The musical "Chicago" continued to climb in narrower release. The Golden Globe winner for best comedy or musical expanded to 616 theaters, an increase of 59, and took in $8.5 million to finish at No. 3, up from last weekend's sixth place.
"Chicago" averaged an impressive $13,721 a theater, the best in the top 10, compared with $4,406 in 2,837 theaters for "Darkness Falls."
With $40.6 million already in the bank and solid Academy Awards prospects, "Chicago" is well poised to expand into wide release Feb. 7, days before the Oscar nominations come out on Feb. 11.
"It's a very enviable position to be in," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations Inc. "Musicals have been out of favor for so long, but 'Chicago' is beating all the odds and performing better and better as it rolls out."
George Clooney's directorial debut, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," broke into the top 10 in its first weekend of wide release after a limited debut in December to qualify for the Oscars. Starring Sam Rockwell as game-show host Chuck Barris in a fictionalized film biography, "Confessions" grossed $6 million and came in at No. 8.
Other Oscar contenders held well as they expanded to more theaters, including Golden Globe best comedy actor winner Jack Nicholson's "About Schmidt," which came in at No. 9 with $5.5 million in a moderately wide 1,236 theaters. Globes best drama winner "The Hours," for which Nicole Kidman won best actress, was No. 10 with an estimated $4 million. It had a healthy average of $7,968 in 502 theaters.
Other movies in the top 10 were the romantic comedy "Just Married" at No. 4 with $7.5 million and the Martin Lawrence comedy "National Security" at No. 5 with $7.4 million. "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" came in at No. 6 with an estimated $6.9 million, and "Catch Me if You Can" was at No. 7 with $6.6 million.
Overall, the box office dropped sharply compared with the same weekend last year, when "Black Hawk Down" was the No. 1 film. The top 12 movies grossed $82.9 million, down 25%. Some of that decrease was a result of moviegoers staying home to watch the Super Bowl.
"Darkness Falls" benefited from a slow weekend in which it was the only wide-release debut. It stars Emma Caulfield of TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" as a woman battling a ghost that's slicing and dicing people in her town.
With a tight $11-million budget, "Darkness Falls" should turn a solid profit, said Tom Sherak, a partner at Revolution Studios, which produced the movie for distributor Sony.