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''House on Haunted Hill'' scares up a No. 1

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Moviegoers were in the Halloween spirit this weekend, flocking to ”House on Haunted Hill” to satisfy their spook jones. The horror flick easily came in first with an estimated $15.1 million, even without any advance screenings for critics. Its gross (which has already matched its $15 million budget) was nearly as much as the next three runners-up combined: ”The Best Man” ($6.5 million), ”Double Jeopardy” ($5.4 million), and ”American Beauty” ($3.9 million).

Halloween weekend is a notoriously slow one at the box office, what with everyone out nabbing candy, going to parties, or throwing eggs, but ”House” managed to set a record for the holiday and help lift up the weekend’s receipts: While the Top 10’s total grosses were down 14 percent from last weekend’s, they were up 13 percent from last year’s Halloween tally.

”House” was nearly the only success story this weekend, though. You might think ”Scream” director Wes Craven would be a shoo-in to carry the spooky weekend, but not with his Meryl Streep-teaches-violin flick ”Music of the Heart,” which grossed just $3.7 million to land in fifth place. And recent openers are plummeting fast: In their third weekends, ”The Story of Us” dropped 44 percent to $3 million, giving it a $22.3 million total, and ”Fight Club” fell 42 percent to $3.3 million for a to-date gross of $27.7 million — and neither will climb much higher.

There is room for optimism with ”Being John Malkovich,” however. The surreal comedy showed promise in limited release, taking in $637,371 in only 25 theaters (an impressive $25,495 per-theater average). Perhaps John Malkovich will be the hot costume next year, replacing Darth Maul?

CRITICAL MASS Visit our critical mass movie poll to find the critics’ grades or to give your own grade to any film in major release.

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