The Urge for The Purge

The cheapo horror film takes the top spot by dicing and slicing Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson

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One night each year, in the future world of The Purge, the U.S. government allows its citizens to commit any crime, including murder, without retribution. Hollywood is a bit more indulgent: a few times a year, the industry lets audiences feed their inner frightened child, flock to a horror movie and make it the weekend’s top-grossing picture. Voilà: The Purge. Starring Ethan Hawke and Game of Thrones’ Lena Headey, this R-rated home-invasion thriller-on-the-cheap nearly doubled the business predicted for it, earning $36.4 million at North American theaters, according to preliminary studio estimates. All competitors could be afraid, very afraid; Universal, the film’s sponsor, can scream all the way to the bank.

And scream in the heat. The 2013 horror films that preceded The Purge to the top of the charts — Texas Chainsaw 3-D, Mama, Warm Bodies and Evil Dead — all opened between New Year’s and Arbor Day (and all earned considerably less in their first three days). But like the masked thugs who break into rich man Hawke’s house, The Purge commandeered a summertime slot that the big-boy movies consider their turf. This weekend last year, the new entries were the franchise behemoths Madagascar 3, which opened to $60.3 million, and Prometheus, at $51.1 million. The same weekend in 2011, X-Men: First Class attracted $55.1 million. Then again, The Purge earned more this frame than any movie did last weekend. Translation: Better than Vin Diesel. Way better than Will Smith.

[UPDATE: According to final figures, released Monday, Universal overestimated the weekend gross for The Purge by 6.4%; the actual number was $34.1 million — still, quite a haul. The actual total for The Internship was $17.3 million, 4.3% below the Sunday prediction. In limited release, Much Ado About Nothing fetched $171,941, 6% less than the early estimate.]

If the opening for The Purge is only so-so for the first weekend in June, it’s sensational for a film with a minuscule budget of $3 million. The picture made more than that in its Thursday-evening screenings, and 12 times as much through its first Sunday. The audience, which skewed young (56% under 25) and female (56%), with a 33% showing of Hispanics, gave the movie a CinemaScore rating of C. That’s about average for a horror film, where the adage is to take the money and, on the run, plan a quick sequel. That’s surely part of the grand plan of The Purge producer Jason Blum, who also godfathered the Paranormal Activity franchise: he ends his new movie with the government’s promise that the same evening of anarchy will occur as usual next year.

(MORE: Has the Paranormal Activity Series Jumped the Shock?)

Among The Purge’s unsuspecting hostages were Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, whose buddy comedy Wedding Crashers earned $209.3 million in the summer of 2005. But that was so long ago — like, pre-Twitter. The new Vaughn-Wilson pairing, The Internship, about two jobless guys who feel out of place among the young brains at Google, carried the ad line “Crashing the system” to remind viewers of the connection with the venerable hit. The only thing that crashed, though, was the hope of the movie’s sponsor, Fox, for a healthy profit line. The Internship premiered to a modest $16.1 million, $20 million below The Purge, to finish fourth behind week three of Furious 6 (which passed the $200 million mark in North America and is nearing $600 million worldwide) and week two of the magicians’ caper film Now You See Me.

(MORE: Harry McCracken on the Googleness of The Internship)

The Internship’s audience, which gave the movie a B-plus CinemaScore, was split evenly by gender, but way older than usual: 65% over the age of 25. At a medium-to-pricey production cost of $58 million, the movie looks to have a Red Wedding — not exactly the connubial slaughter of the Stark clan in Game of Thrones, but more like a ledger book’s red ink.

(MORE: Fact-Checking the Internships in The Internship)

Among indie premieres, the most imposing was Much Ado About Nothing, Joss Whedon’s rendering of a Shakespeare rom-com into a 12-day jaunt for the director’s actor pals at his Santa Monica home. Opening in five theaters, Much Ado cadged $183,500, for a $36,600 per-screen average — in line with two promising indie debuts from last month, Frances Ha ($34,350 PSA) and Before Midnight, with Hawke and Julie Delpy ($49,383 PSA).

(MORE: Belinda Luscombe’s 10 Questions for Joss Whedon)

Another strong opening was registered in the $66,000 on four screens for Dirty Wars, journalist Jeremy Scahill’s documenting of the Obama Administration’s drone strikes. Note to Hollywood’s liberal supporters of the President: those legalized killings occur more than just one night a year.

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

1. The Purge, $36.4 million, first weekend
2. Furious 6, $19.8 million; $202.9 million, third week
3. Now You See Me, $19.5 million; $61.4 million, second week
4. The Internship, $16.1 million, first weekend
5. Epic $12.1 million; $84.2 million, third week
6. Star Trek Into Darkness, $11.7 million; $200.1 million, fourth week
7. After Earth, $11.2 million; $46.6 million, second week
8. The Hangover Part III, $7.4 million; $102.4 million, third week
9. Iron Man 3, $5.8 million; $394.3 million, sixth week
10. The Great Gatsby, $4.2 million; $136.2 million, fifth week