There are many horror movies that are good until the last act, when they turn into such complete shit that it's frankly hard to remember what was good about everything up to that point. Many horror movies. The Last Exorcism, from 2010, is not necessarily distinct within that company; it does not start at the highest height, nor does it reach the lowest low. But it does stand out for how brief the bad ending actually is: only about 12 minutes before the credits is all it takes to undo the goodwill generated by a generally sturdy 74 minutes preceding.

We'll return to those 12 minutes in due course; for now, it does to accentuate the positive. To begin with, The Last Exorcism is one of those faux-documentary jobs, right before they really took off. I swear, that's one of the positive things, even though I know all the terrible things people say about the inaptly-named found footage style. I have, after all, said a great many of them. That's exactly the thing that's so nifty about the movie though (in fact, it's probably its most distinctive strength): there's a really smart, motivated reason for almost every frame of the movie that we see to have been recorded by the in-universe cameraman, Daniel Moskowitz (Adam Grimes), and his director, documentarian Iris Reisen (Iris Bahr). They are, after all, making a documentary about a charismatic exorcist, Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian). They don't know at the start that he'll be called on an exorcism, but they undoubtedly had their fingers crossed. The spooky, threatening incidents that usually trigger the wave of "put the camera down and run, dipshit" complaints are going to have the exact opposite effect on them: that is exactly what they want to film. Iris probably spends every night wishing herself to sleep that there will be some alarming, inexplicable terror to rattle her and Daniel around the room. And the way the footage is presented is exactly like an assembly cut that needs onscreen titles and some sweetening to the sound. Mind you, the film's ending commits the usual sins, and they are magnified by how solid everything up to that point has been: the way the story wraps up makes it clear that nobody would have cut the film together, and if they had, we'd never have seen it. But before then! In terms of sheer formal plausibility, it's as tight as any other found footage movie since the airtight The Blair Witch Project.

The content of Huck Botko & Andrew Gurland's script isn't too shabby itself, though it does tend to err on the side of self-congratulation. Cotton is the very definition of a good ol' boy blood & thunder preacher: anxious to give his parishioners a good show even while he's assuring them that if they make even the slightest misstep, they'll be devoured by the eternal flames of Hell. It's hardcore conservative Evangelical Protestantism with a healthy dose of Manichaeism, and it's all perfectly fraudulent. As Cotton concedes with a startling lack of shame for a man staring directly into a camera lens, he had a crippling crisis of faith when his sickly son was healed and his immediate response was to be grateful for the doctors, not God. Later on a news article about a boy his son's age died during a botched exorcism, and that shook the rest of his belief out; now he's going through the motions strictly for the benefit of his flock, on the assumption that as long as his words improve their lives, there's no harm done. "You've been a fraud", Iris accuses him, with an obvious "gotcha" tone; "That's your word, not mine", he tosses back with a big smile.

These Elmer Gantry-esque exploration of the pastor as con man and huckster are tremendously engaging, thanks almost completely to Fabian's sweeping, gregarious performance, all broad smiles and large gestures and a big way of dominating the room. He's slimy and slick, but in a way that invites us to join him in his fun trickery; his early demonstration that a recipe for banana bread can be slid into a fired-up sermon without anybody noticing is, to me, the film's most unique and enjoyable moment. The only problem with all this is that it's frankly a bit easy: taking potshots at charismatic preachers and then smirking like some kind of wounding hit has been taken is the pettiest, littlest kind of smug urbanity. We've seen this before; the charm of Fabian's performance augments that truth, but doesn't fix it.

Then again, we've seen just about everything The Last Exorcism has to offer, if we've seen more than one or two movies with "Exorcism" or "Exorcist" in the title, and the audience for a found-footage demonic possession movie is nothing if not self-selecting along those lines. Cotton gets a particularly intriguing request from a rural family, begging for help with a possession; its hand-written nature appeals to him, so off he and the filmmakers go to find out what's happening. 16-year-old Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) has been acting peculiar, if slaughtering her father's livestock can be summed up with such a simple word as "peculiar". Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum) subscribes to the most archly paranoiac type of faith; he pulled his daughter and son from school because she wasn't being exposed to sufficiently Godly music in art class, among more typical reasons. He even stopped going to church with local Pastor Manley (Tony Bentley), presumably for not enough old time religion. Cotton, for his part, puts on a good show, using some electric doodads to convince the Sweetzers, including elder child Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones) that he's chasing a demon out of the girl, and calls it a good deed. But when Nell shows up at his hotel, he grows concerned that something deeper than the usual psychosomatic Sturm und Drang is going on, so he forced Louis to have her hospitalised, over the man's terror of modern medicine. And it just so happens that Nell is pregnant. Cotton and Iris immediately jump to the assumption that she's been raped by her father, but this is a movie called The Last Exorcism, and we can be forgiven for assuming it's a little more sneaky than that.

But not sneaky in the way you'd think: the idea the film starts to play around with is that Nell is suffering from a bad case of being 16 years old and having a desire to express her sexuality while trapped in an environment of severest repressions (it becomes clear later in the movie that Louis would much rather assume that his daughter has been raped than that she had sex of her own choosing). And so she has sublimated her desire to have sex and break away from her insanely puritanical family life into the form of a made-up trickster demon named Abalam, because movie demons have the worst fucking names.* But at least it lacks the slurry Zs of "Pazuzu". Sorry The Exorcist, but you have a goofy-sounding bad guy.

None of this is, as such, particularly new or exciting or brave, and like many and many an exorcism film before it, The Last Exorcism doesn't work very hard to enter into the actual possession victim's head, if only because it needs very hard to keep us wondering if she's suffering from paranormal or strictly psychological torments (for a much better experiment in the same mode, we have the 2006 German film Requiem). In The Exorcist, they could get away with that; it is a film mostly about the responses people have to the possession. Here, they cannot. Cotton starts out with a very Father Karras-ish plot arc as the man of the cloth who's lost his faith and must regain it by fighting with actual spiritual evil, but the film maintains the possibility that there is no demon for so long that he's never forced to do anything but reiterate that, as always, he's right and it's just one big psychosomatic stress. Besides, he instantly ceases to be an interesting, colorful character when he arrives at the Sweetzer home. Louis is mostly there to be nervous and plaintive - Herthum works much too hard to make the character likable, which helps in complicating the script's self-superior attitude, but not for adding an edge to the suggestion that Nell has been driven crazy by a wretch of father - and Caleb is only ever on the sidelines, which means that we're basically watching activity being performed rather than characters having feelings.

And so, for all its stabs at complexity, The Last Exorcism proves to be pretty much a generic spook show, with the usual guttural speech and self-mutilation of all the other exorcism movies. It has one strikingly original and deeply disturbing gore scene, when Nell uses the camera to beat a cat to death - its blood remains streaked on the lens for quite some time - but director Daniel Stamm otherwise offers no personalising touches to a movie that has only the gritty cheapness of the first person aesthetic to differentiate itself from 37 years of Exorcist knock-offs. Still, it acquits itself well enough for all of that; the last big exorcism movie prior to 2010 was The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and The Last Exorcism movie beats that one senseless.

So the film heads into the final stretch with a steady gait and head held high, and then it trips and head-plants into the asphalt. I'm not sure when exactly the set the marker for the film's descent into total garbage; the extremely ill-timed interview with an awkward gay teen boy (Logan Craig Reid) whom Nell had named as the real father of her non-demonic baby is the first point that I said loud, in an empty room "Well, what the fuck". Certainly, by the point that Stamm crash-zooms into a pentagram painted on the Sweetzers' wall as the music gives us the most generic sting (so much for found-footage artlessness), it's all over but the tetchy wind-down, as the film erases its ambiguity in the most speedy, arbitrary series of twists, reveals, and ginned-up jump scares possible, complete with a sudden flurry of death because, dammit, this was a horror movie, and we had best leave nobody alive, right?

It's not the most sudden nosedive in quality a horror film could take; strictly limiting ourselves to movies that premiered in 2010, it's not as galling as the third act descent into putresence that mars the splendid opening hour of Insidious. But it's still enormously misconceived and stupidly blunt, and the moderate strengths of The Last Exorcism up to that point aren't able to survive it.

Body Count: 3, with a 4th who's clearly going to die pretty soon. Also that poor cat.