* "Texas Chainsaw 3D" surprise box office winner last weekend
* Horror movies earned $525.8 million at box office in 2012
* Horror film franchises among the most enduring in movies
SAN FRANCISCO, Jan 11 (Reuters) - The unexpected turnout this month to see horror movie "Texas Chainsaw 3D" just weeks after a mass shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut underscores the enduring appeal of the genre to both filmgoers and studios.
The lucrative return on such low-budget films, combined with studio success releasing them in January, means U.S. audiences will get their fill of horror in the weeks to come.
"Texas Chainsaw 3D," forecast to gross $16 million, took in a surprisingly strong $23 million at the box office during its opening weekend, beating out more critically acclaimed films such as "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" and "Les Miserables."
Early estimates for this weekend forecast the movie will take $8 million to $10 million in ticket sales. Movies typically lose between a quarter and half their box office take from week-to-week.
Chainsaw's performance, however, has some critics arguing that releasing the movie so close after the the shooting that killed 20 children and six staff members in Newtown, Connecticut, was in poor taste.
"I think the very act of releasing this film right now is almost immoral," said Wheeler Winston Dixon, author of "A History of Horror" and professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
Distributor Lions Gate Entertainment declined to comment.
GUNS AND MOVIES
Chainsaw will not be alone this month when it comes to violent films. "Gangster Squad," which opens Friday, was originally scheduled for September. But it was pushed back because of the July movie-theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, that killed 12 people.
Time Warner Inc, the film's distributor, edited out a scene showing a similar shooting.
Among other films in the genre debuting soon are the spoof horror movie "A Haunted House" and science fiction-based fright flick "Storage 24," about a mystery predator hunting humans in a locked down London.
The tragedy at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown led to the creation of a gun violence task force led by Vice President Joe Biden. On Thursday, entertainment industry executives met with Biden to discuss ways to cut back on images of violence.
But for studios, the allure is irresistible, especially when it comes to the often immensely profitable horror genre. Horror movies are typically low budget - "Texas Chainsaw 3D" cost less than $10 million to film and around $20 million to market, people familiar with the situation say.
"The history of horror films has been trying to produce them on the cheap, and trying to produce a larger return," said Lawrence Raffel, vice president of digital content at FEARnet, a cable service specializing in horror.
The low costs of horror production give studios more flexibility when it comes to financing, said Peter Schlessel, chief executive of FilmDistrict, which in August is releasing "Insidious 2," sequel to a film about a kid who becomes a vessel for ghosts. It is often possible to finance almost the entire production budget by selling foreign rights, he said.
And audiences get a thrill out of the suspense and the violence, perhaps more so when they are dealing with a stressful situation in real life, analysts and movie executives said.
"Getting scared, getting really scared in a movie theater with a horror movie offers the perfect escape," said Paul Dergarabedian, an analyst at Hollywood.com.
Horror movies - including the bloodier ones known as slasher flicks - typically don't involved gun violence. The brutality is usually more fantastical, such as Freddy Kruger's finger-knives in the "Nightmare on Elm Street." There is not one death by gun in "Texas Chainsaw 3D," for instance.
The beginning of the year has become a popular time to release horror films. Universal's "Mama," about girls haunted by a woman they believe is their mother, comes out Jan. 18. In February comes "Last Exorcism, Part II" by CBS Corps' film division.
"A lot of the public is oversaturated with the academy fare that's being pushed at the end of the year," said Lionsgate marketing chief Tim Palen, referring to highbrow films vying for Academy Awards. "This audience is easy to reach, relatively."
Horror movies often lend themselves to franchises, which have become a Hollywood mainstay. Studios see them as less risky than introducing an unknown setting and group of characters.
The original "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," released in 1974, was one of the first of the group and became a cult classic. However, due to a few poorly received "Chainsaw" releases in the 1990s, the overall franchise has lagged.
"Friday the 13th" has taken in $380.6 million in box office receipts over 12 movies -- an average of $31.7 million per release, according to Box Office Mojo. The "Saw" franchise -- about a creative serial killer -- leads the pack, grossing $415.8 million over seven films for an average of about $59 million per movie.
The "Chainsaw" franchise has grossed $164.8 million over six movies, an average of $27.5 million each.
But that could change. Millennium Films, which owns the rights to "Texas Chainsaw," said on Tuesday that it planned to start filming "Texas Chainsaw 4" later this year.