But domestically, audiences flocked to the PG-13-rated "Mama," which bore the imprimatur of the well-respected fantasy-spinner Guillermo Del Toro, a producer.
"Never underestimate the drawing power of a PG-13 horror film," said Paul Dergarabedian, box-office analyst for Hollywood.com.
Nikki Rocco, head of distribution for Universal Pictures, acknowledged the apparently limitless appetite for such a film, if done right: "That's why we did it," she said.
"It's a fun film without a lot of extraordinary violence," said Rocco, who added she would have been "thrilled" with a debut in the mid- to high-teens. "Young people like scary stuff."
With Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, Hollywood will get a virtual four-day weekend at the box office. Universal is predicting "Mama" to finish with $33.2 million by the end of Monday.
Though horror films generally are a hit with male audiences, "Mama" appealed strongly to females, who made up 61 percent of its moviegoers. That was key on a weekend filled with male-driven movies, including "Broken City," ''The Last Stand," ''Django Unchained" and Warner Bros.' "Gangster Squad."
"It's an incredibly competitive marketplace for testosterone-driven films," said Dergarabedian.
The Weinstein Co.'s "Silver Linings Playbook," nominated for eight Academy Awards including best picture, expanded to its largest number of theaters in its 10th week of release. Playing in 2,523 theaters, a jump of 1,713 theaters, the David O. Russell film took in $11.4 million on the weekend — the same in which its star Jennifer Lawrence hosted "Saturday Night Live" — for a cumulative $55.3 million.
Other Oscar favorites saw their largest boost internationally. Ang Lee's 3-D fantasy "Life of Pi" continued to attract moviegoers worldwide, adding $20.7 million to its huge $393.9 million international haul. The international take for Tom Hooper's musical, "Les Miserables," also grew to $150.5 million with $19.4 million on the weekend.