Subnormal Activity for the Paranormal Franchise

The fourth episodes scares up fewer visitors than the previous two, while 'Argo' holds strong and Tyler Perry makes 'Alex' cross

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Dean Hendler / Paramount Pictures

Death took a holiday from the Paranormal Activity franchise. For the first time in four pre-Halloween haunt-jaunts, the series did not meet expectations, with Paranormal Activity 4 taking in $30.2 million, according to preliminary studio estimates. The weekend’s other wide release, the serial-killer thriller Alex Cross, grossed a mild $11.75 million, while Ben Affleck’s Oscar-bound Argo held strong in second place with $16.6 million.

PA4 easily won the weekend at North American theaters, but with a surprisingly meager amount — far below the $40.7 million scared up in 2010 by PA2 and the sensational $52.6 million for PA3 last October. Returning the writer and directors of the third entry, PA4 endured tepid reviews and a libelous CinemaScore of C, which a college student’s parents would call an F. The first-weekend audience, 60% of which was under 25, was split equally between males and females.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Paranormal Activity 4)

Paramount, the films’ distributor, will shrug off the ugly word of mouth and keep the profits, thanks — which are considerable, given the $5 million budget. “There can be softness that happens in the domestic marketplace with sequels, “Megan Colligan, the studio’s president of domestic distribution, told The Wrap, “but a little bit of softening here is mitigated by a growing marketplace internationally.” Colligan must be thinking of the Resident Evil franchise, whose last two episodes have earned more than 80% of their worldwide revenue abroad. If PA4, which amassed $26.5 million in 33 foreign territories this weekend, can push up its numbers overseas, the series could remain a cash corpse for years to come.

(READ: Corliss on the Resident Evil franchise)

Alex Cross, the psychologist-sleuth hero of 18 James Patterson novels, was played by Morgan Freeman in the 1997 Kiss the Girls and the 2001 Along Came a Spider. Perry, the writer, director and drag-queen star of the Christian-themed Madea comedy-dramas, might be the busiest and richest African-American movie figure, but he proved an odd fit for Cross, who this time fights a serial killer known as The Butcher (Matthew Fox). The villain might as well have been another psycho-genius from the Patterson books: the Audience Killer. Alex Cross suffered the lowest opening of any Perry film, attracting remnants of his Madea audience — 74% of the first-weekend attendees were black, 68% over 35 — but few other patrons.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Alex Cross)

Those who went, liked: the film, directed by franchise feeder Rob Cohen (The Fast and the Furious, the third of Brendan Fraser’s Mummy movies), pulled a rosy “A” rating on CinemaScore. Whether that translates into enough business to push the $23-million production into profit, or to extend the series, is the one mystery that remains to be solved.

(READ: Corliss on Tyler Perry’s Madea movies)

The two big openings may have generated disappointing returns, but the holdovers showed great legs. Argo dropped less than 15% from its opening weekend tally, staying in second place and mimicking the strong holds of previous early-autumn releases, The Departed and The Social Network, that hung around to contend for (or, the the case of The Departed, win) the race for the Best-Picture Oscar. In its fourth week, Hotel Transylvania, the animated comedy with the voices of Adam Sandler and his gang, slipped just 22% and is nearing $120 million. Taken 2, with Liam Neeson in another cage match with the kidnappers of his family, crossed the $100-million mark in its third week. Add the $135 million it has earned abroad, and the sequel has nearly equaled the $245 million the first film grossed in its entire run.

In indie debuts, The Sessions, the Oscar-touted drama about a polio-afflicted virgin (John Hawkes) and his designated sex surrogate (Helen Hunt), totted a promising $121,000 in four theaters. That take was far above the modest returns for three films opening on two screens each: the black-kids-play-chess doc Brooklyn Castle ($22,100), the dreamy French experiment Holy Motors ($19,500) and the sex-minded comedy-drama Nobody Walks (7,500).

Among indie-minded holdovers, Seven Psychopaths filched $3.3 million in 1,480 theaters, for 11th place this weekend and a $9.2-million cume in 10 days, while The Perks of Being a Wallflower, in half as many venues, came in 12th with $2.15 million and a $9.1-million total in its fourth week. Emma Watson and her high-school rejects could prove to be the movie year’s most popular nerds.

Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. Paranormal Activity 4, $30.2 million, first weekend

2. Argo, $16.6 million; $43.2 million, second week

3. Hotel Transylvania, $13.5 million; $119 million, fourth week

4. Taken 2, $13.4 million; $106 million, third week

5. Alex Cross, $11.75 million, first weekend

6. Sinister, $9 million; $31.95 million, second week

7. Here Comes the Boom, $8.5 million; $23.2 million, second week

8. Pitch Perfect, $7 million; $45.8 million, fourth week

9. Frankenweenie, $4.4 million; $28.3 million, third week

10. Looper, $4.2 million; $57.8 million, fourth week