Jessica Chastain overpowered Mark Wahlberg, Arnold Schwarzenegger and others as her low-budget horror flick emerged as the North American weekend box office champ and her Oscar-nominated "Zero Dark Thirty" captured the second spot as well.
Chastain's supernatural thriller, "Mama," pulled in $28.1 million from Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to studio estimates, beating out a crop of new testosterone-fueled, male-targeted releases that finished far back in the pack.
"Zero Dark Thirty," for which Chastain is a leading best actress Oscar contender, took in $17.6 million, while another late 2012 release and Oscar favorite, "Silver Linings Playbook," finished third with $11.35 million.
"Broken City," a crime thriller starring Wahlberg and Russell Crowe, finished fifth with $9 million behind "Gangster Squad's" $9.1 million, while Schwarzenegger's new action film, "The Last Stand," earned $6.3 million for a dismal 10th place.
"Mama" stars Chastain as a guitarist who doesn't want children but is forced to take care of two orphaned nieces who have been living in the woods. She and her husband try to re-adjust the little girls to normal life.
Based on a 2008 short film, the movie was produced for roughly $15 million.
"This is a great result, one we never would have expected especially for a film of this genre," said Nikki Rocco, Universal's president for domestic distribution.
"The timing was perfect," she said, noting "the key was it's a PG-13 movie that appealed to the under-25 female audience."
The studio said it was hopeful that as the only PG-13 film in release this month it would continue to find an audience.
Chastain is a best actress Oscar nominee for her role as a dogged CIA agent in "Zero Dark Thirty," the weekend's second-place film about the decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden. The movie has taken in $55.9 million since late December.
"Silver Linings Playbook," an Oscar-nominated romantic comedy about a former mental patient trying to rebuild his life, expanded nationwide for a strong third-place finish and a $55.3 million total since the movie starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence opened in late autumn.
Both Oscar contenders handily beat out a pair of new, male-oriented films, as did crime thriller "Gangster Squad."
"The Last Stand" features Schwarzenegger's return to a starring, big-screen role after a seven-year break while he was serving as governor of California, but managed only $6.3 million to finish 10th. The former "Terminator" will star in three movies over the next 12 months.
Schwarzenegger plays a retired Los Angeles policeman who works to protect a tiny border town from a notorious drug kingpin. The film was produced for about $45 million.
The studio noted that the weekend was crowded with several movie-going choices, and that two films were competing for the same audience, referring to the weekend's other new movie, "Broken City," which stars Wahlberg as a former New York cop who uncovers a scandal involving the mayor, played by Russell Crowe.
The top 10 movies were rounded out by "A Haunted House," "Django Unchained," "Les Miserables" and "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."
"Zero Dark Thirty" was released by Sony Corp's (6758.T) (SNE.N) movie studio.
"The Last Stand" was distributed by Lions Gate Entertainment (LGF.N).
"The Hobbit" and "Gangster Squad" were released by Warner Bros, a unit of Time Warner Inc (TWX.N).
"A Haunted House" was released by Open Road Films, a joint venture between theater owners Regal Entertainment Group (RGC.N) and AMC Entertainment Inc MHIAE.UL.
"Django Unchained" and "Silver Linings Playbook" were distributed by Weinstein Co.
"Broken City" was distributed by 20th Century Fox, a unit of News Corp (NWSA.O).
"Les Miserables" and "Mama" were distributed by Universal Pictures, a unit of Comcast Corp (CMCSA.O).
(Reporting By Lisa Richwine and Chris Michaud; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)