LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Movie thriller "Gone Girl," starring Ben Affleck as a man suspected of causing his wife's disappearance, overcame a demonic doll named "Annabelle" to win a tight weekend race at U.S. and Canadian movie box offices.
"Gone Girl" pulled in $38 million over its first three days in domestic theaters, according to estimates released Sunday by tracking firm Rentrak. Horror flick "Annabelle" ranked close behind with $37.2 million.
Last weekend's No. 1 film, thriller "The Equalizer" starring Denzel Washington, dropped to third. The movie collected $19 million over the weekend and brought its cumulative domestic sales to $64.5 million.
"Gone Girl," based on a best-selling novel by Gillian Flynn, earned strong reviews from critics, with an 87 percent positive rating on review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes.
Affleck stars as a writer who is caught in a media circus when his wife goes missing and the police suspect he is responsible. Rosamund Pike plays his wife.
"There was a confluence of events that created an urgency to see this thought-provoking film," said Chris Aronson, president of domestic distribution for 20th Century Fox, the unit of 21st Century Fox that released the $61 million film.
"This is a water cooler movie and I think it will play and play and play," said Aronson, adding that it marked "The Social Network" director David Fincher's biggest-ever opening and that the studio had expected an opening of about $25 million.
Aronson said the 60 percent female, 40 percent male audience had skewed a bit more male than he had expected, saying "It's becoming a bit of a date movie."
Horror fans turned out for "Annabelle," a spin-off of last year's hit "The Conjuring." The low-budget movie produced for just $6.5 million tells the story of a young husband and wife who become terrorized by a porcelain doll given as a gift.
"We're very pleased," said Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros., a Time Warner Inc unit, noting the film exceeded expectations across the marketplace but performed especially well with Hispanic moviegoers.
Fellman said the studio would have been happy with a total over $20 million, "but we're looking at nearly $40 million."
Both executives pointed to strong box office numbers across the board, after a tepid summer and a slow September.
Elsewhere, animated movie "The Boxtrolls" took fourth place with $12.4 million at North American (U.S. and Canadian) theaters. Young adult thriller "The Maze Runner" finished fifth, grossing $12 million.
Biblical thriller "Left Behind," which was panned by critics, debuted in sixth place with $6.9 million.
"The Equalizer" was released by Sony Corp's movie studio. Comcast Corp's Universal Pictures distributed "The Boxtrolls." Fox released "Maze Runner," and Freestyle Releasing distributed "Left Behind."
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine and Chris Michaud; Editing by Abigail Fielding-Smith)