Hard to say what's scarier: the downright hostile reviews and word-of-mouth for 'The Devil Inside,' or the fact that the pans didn't stop the new horror movie from a record-breaking box office debut. 'Devil' took possession of the box office crown with an estimated $34.5 million, about twice what was expected, setting a record for the biggest opening ever for the first weekend of the year.
No one expected much from the low-budget chiller, a star-free effort opening on just 2,285 screens. But the film had two things going for it: the marketing savvy of Paramount -- last year's top-grossing studio and the distributor of the similarly cheap, docu-style 'Paranormal Activity' horror franchise, which now owns October -- and audiences' fondness for exorcism movies, which seem to do especially well in January, when viewers want an antidote to the sugarplum sweetness of holiday fare. Past Januarys have seen such related hits as 'One Missed Call,' 'The Unborn,' and 'The Rite.'

Still, none of them did as well as 'The Devil Inside,' which is not only the top first-weekend debut but also the third best ever opening in January, topped only by fellow docu-horror movie 'Cloverfield' in 2008 ($40.1 million million) and the 'Star Wars' special edition re-release in 1997 ($35.9 million). Still, it's hard to account for such a huge opening for a movie so poorly received by audiences as well as critics. (Demonic influence, perhaps?) It'll be interesting to see how the movie holds up next weekend, when the movie won't face any new wide-release competition for the horror audience, and when its only obstacle will be its own negative buzz; audiences gave 'The Devil Inside' an almost unheard-of F-grade on Cinemascore.

The success of 'Devil' scared up crowds for other movies as well, judging by how well older movies held onto their audiences. Last week's champ, 'Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol,' slipped to second place but lost just 30 percent of last weekend's business, a shallow drop for a movie in its fourth week of release. It earned an estimated $20.5 million, for a total to date of $170.2 million.

In third was 'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,' another four-week veteran, which fell just 33 percent to an estimated $14.1 million. Its total so far is $157.4 million.

The smallest dip among wide releases belonged to 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,' The thriller slid just 24 percent, taking in an estimated $11.3 million, good for fourth place. Despite a slow start three weeks ago, the film has earned $76.8 million so far, and distributor Sony believes it's on track to cross $100 million.

The top family movie was still 'Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked,' which finished in fifth place. Its estimated $9.5 million take, down 42 percent from last week, brings the film's four-week total to $111.6 million.

Moving into wider release, 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' broke into the top 10 by expanding from 57 screens to 809. It earned an estimated $5.8 million, good for ninth place and a five-week total of $10.4 million.

Awards buzz for 'Tinker' and several more limited-release movies was reflected in large per-screen averages for some year-end contenders playing in just a handful of theaters. 'The Iron Lady' averaged an estimated $34,420 on each of five screens. 'A Separation' earned an estimated $16,103 on each of its six screens. The per-screen average of 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close' (six screens) was an estimated $16,000. 'Pina' scored an average estimated at $27,000 for each of three screens. By comparison, 'Devil Inside' enjoyed a per-screen average of $15,098.

Already, box office for 2012 is $283.8 million, some 12.6 percent ahead of the same period a year ago. Between last weekend's busy New Year's traffic and this weekend's successes, 2012 is off to a roaring start.

'The Devil Inside' - Trailer No. 1

The full top 10:
1. 'The Devil Inside,' $34.5 million (2,285 screens), new release
2. 'Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol,' $30.5 million (3,555), $170.2 million total
3. 'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,' $14.1 million (3,603), $157.4 million
4. 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,' $11.3 million (2,950), $76.8 million
5. 'Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked,' $9.5 million (3,425), $111.6 million
6. 'War Horse,' $8.6 million (2,783), $56.8 million
7. 'We Bought a Zoo,' $8.5 million (3,170), $56.5 million
8. 'The Adventures of Tintin,' $6.6 million (3,006), $61.9 million
9. 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' $5.8 million (809), $10.4 million
10. 'New Year's Eve,' $3.3 million (1,864), $52.0 million

[Photo: Paramount]

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The Devil Inside
Based on 19 critics

A woman (Fernanda Andrade) and two young exorcists battle demons for her mother's soul. Read More

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Based on 42 critics

During the Cold War, a veteran agent must ferret out a Soviet mole who is in the ranks of MI6. Read More