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Horror movies send the fans running _ into the theaters

Horror films proved potent at the nation's multiplexes as The Sixth Sense edged The Blair Witch Project with an impressive $25.8-million at 2,161 theaters to lead the second-highest weekend overall at the nation's box offices.

Disney's Sense, with Bruce Willis as a psychologist helping an 8-year-old boy beset by unseen demons, beat forecasts with the biggest August opening in history as it eclipsed by $2-million the record set in 1993 by The Fugitive.

"We had a huge mountain to climb with Blair Witch and the rest of the marketplace being so competitive," said Disney distribution chief Chuck Viane.

Blair Witch, made for a minuscule $60,000, continued to scare up remarkable business with $23.5-million at 2,142 theaters as Artisan added 1,041 sites for the mock-documentary. Despite losing 19 percent from last weekend's total, the expansion of Blair from the art-house circuit to mainstream locales has been an unqualified success with total gross at $79-million.

With Deep Blue Sea in fifth and The Haunting in eighth, horror films combined for an astounding $6-million as the genre helped keep moviegoing at a sizzling pace. Overall ticket sales hit $151-million, falling $5.4-million short of last weekend's all-time three-day record. Six films topped $10-million; the summer's cumulative total has nearly matched last summer's $2.58-billion with four weekends left.

"The overall business is just phenomenal," said Robert Bucksbaum, president of the Reel Source forecasting service.

Bucksbaum predicted Sixth Sense will take in $88-million overall while Blair could hit almost $120-million. Both have received strong critical support.

Finishing a close third was Paramount's second weekend of Runaway Bride with $21-million at 3,161 theaters as the romantic comedy fell 40 percent from its winning perch last weekend. Bride has taken in $74-million in 10 days and should easily match the $112-million gross for Julia Roberts' other summer movie, Notting Hill.

MGM's opening of its updated version of The Thomas Crown Affair performed in line with expectations in fourth with $14-million at 2,427 theaters as the Pierce Brosnan-Rene Russo teaming took advantage of a lack of other adult-oriented fare other than Runaway Bride. "It's a fair opening for a major star vehicle," said industry tracker Arthur Rockwell, a former MGM executive. "The studio was probably hoping for more, but that's tough to do with all the competition."

Warner Bros.' second weekend of Deep Blue Sea followed in fifth with $11-million at 2,901 sites as the shark-fest lost 42 percent from its previous weekend and pulled its 12-day take past $45-million. Universal's opening of Mystery Men came in sixth with a respectable $10-million at 2,136 theaters after the studio switched its opening date several times in hopes the quirky comedy would materialize as a sleeper hit.

Disney's third weekend of Inspector Gadget finished seventh with a still-solid $8.4-million at 2,864 locations, topping DreamWorks' third weekend of The Haunting with $6.3-million at 2,881 screens as the latter plunged 58 percent from last weekend and went past $77-million overall.

The weekend's major disappointment came from Warner's opening of The Iron Giant in ninth with $5.7-million at 2,179 theaters, as the animated project failed to generate much box office excitement despite strong reviews. "Anyone who's seen this movie loves it, but it was hard to market, because kids feel that it's just for kids and that's not what a lot of them want to see," Bucksbaum said.

The Iron Giant results underscore the difficulty Warner has faced in trying to crack the animated market and represent its third such underperformer following Quest for Camelot and The King and I. "Warner has had a very cold hand at doing feature animation," Rockwell said, noting that DreamWorks and Paramount have posted far more success at challenging Disney's kingpin status.

Universal's fifth weekend of American Pie took the 10th spot with $4-million at 1,795 theaters to push its 31-day total past $85-million. The studio has high hopes for another comedy hit next weekend with Bowfinger, starring Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy.

Sony's opening of Watergate comedy Dick was almost dead on arrival, in 11th with $2.2-million at 1,522 theaters, as customers ignored positive reviews. Dick faced the obstacle of being a political film _ probably Hollywood's worst-performing genre in recent years _ and appealing to a target audience of adults with teenage stars Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst.

The weekend also saw the first disappearance of Star Wars _ Episode 1: The Phantom Menace from the top 10, as the prequel finished 12th with $2.1-million at 1,188 theaters to pull its 82-day total to $412.7-million, or $48-million short of Star Wars.

Although Phantom Menace jump-started the summer box office, it has not led since its third weekend. Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me beat it the following weekend and, in a reflection of the diversity of the most popular movies, a different film has led every weekend since _ Tarzan, Big Daddy, Wild Wild West, American Pie, Eyes Wide Shut, The Haunting, Runaway Bride and The Sixth Sense.

Bucksbaum said that trend will likely continue next weekend with Bowfinger, forecast to top $20-million. Also opening will be Fox's prison drama Brokedown Palace and New Line's teen comedy Detroit Rock City.

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