Blumhouse, Leigh Whannell and James Wan know horror. Their names are synonymous with it, having brought to life the immensely successful Saw and Insidious franchises, and for Wan specifically, The Conjuring and its many spin-offs.

The men seem to revel in taking a needle to that spot in your brain that asks the question “But what if?” They play with different genres of horror, always with emphasis on the psychological, and do so quite well. So it was hopeful that the pair (co-writers this go around) might be able to reinvigorate the fizzling franchise with its fourth installment Insidious: The Last Key. Unfortunately and maybe not surprisingly, however, the film is the weakest yet.

Once again our protagonist is Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye), the caring-to-a-fault psychic who has a knack for communicating with the dead. We begin with a flashback of her childhood house in New Mexico during the ’50s. Elise struggles with hiding her “gift” from her abusive father who tries to beat her into submission and her understandably terrified little brother, Christian. Hiding it isn’t easy given that her house is located next to a penitentiary in which people are constantly dying in the electric chair and passing on to “the dark” where Elise can see them. Her mother is her only source of support, and it isn’t long before tragedy strikes and even she is taken from Elise.

Fast forward to the present when the demonologist is phoned by a man who is experiencing paranormal activity and asks for her help. Elise starts to jot down his address only to find that, lo and behold, he lives in her childhood house. Though her knee-jerk response is to say no, she quickly changes her mind. She knows what the man is going though, having been through it herself. “I don’t have memories from this place,” Elise says. “I have scars.” It is later revealed via flashback that Elise ran away at the age of 16 to escape her father (consequently abandoning her brother) and has never looked back since. Determined this time to face her demons, she heads out of town with her faithful sidekicks Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Simpson) in a trundling black RV playfully nicknamed the Winneba-ghost.

Back in her old hometown of Five Keys, Elise ends up meeting her two adult nieces by happenstance. She introduces herself, and while Melissa (Spencer Locke) is warm and accepting, Imogen (Caitlin Gerard) remains guarded, perhaps sensing parallels between herself and Elise. They tell her that they had no idea they even had an aunt. Their dad doesn’t tell them anything about his childhood. When Christian (Bruce Davison) arrives on the scene, he is furious at Elise’s sudden appearance and wants the girls to have nothing to do with her. He blames his sister for leaving him in the clutches of their father and terrifying him throughout their childhood with stories of ghosts. Predictably though, through some paranormal twists and turns, the women end up drawn together. They must tackle the evil living at 413 Apple Tree Lane.

Though the first film in the Insidious series centered on a young boy and his troubled parents, Elise was a standout character. Whannell made the arguably unfortunate decision to kill her off and must have realized his mistake all too soon, because the sequel brought her back in ghost form. The third film was made a prequel so that they could utilize her character once more – this time still alive. With this fourth film, they decided to use Elise by having the story take place between films three and one. It’s a sequel to the prequel but a prequel to the original. Are you keeping up?

If that confuses you, you might find the film itself similarly befuddling. These movies have never been the easiest to follow and rely heavy on fun jump scares and ghoulish creatures, and this one is no different. It is busy with characters and subplots that make it feel as cluttered as the basement we’re trapped in for much of the time. The brother, for instance, isn’t needed at all. He feels written in just to have children that can carry on preternatural gifts. Specs and Tucker similarly could have had half their scenes cut. The ham-fisted side bits in which they try desperately to woo the nieces feel cringe-worthy. Because of all of this mess, the big bad demon, supposed to be our main character aside from Elise herself, ends up being underutilized and underdeveloped. The whole thing feels poorly thought out and hurried.

All that being said, there is a major upside! The matriarchy is great in this film and spans three generations of strong women. It’s beyond rare to see a largely female cast, let alone one led by an older woman. Seniors are usually relegated to playing the dementia patients or advice-giving oracles, but Shaye gets a meaty role and she commits to it. She pleads and screams and cries and none of it feels forced. And though she has many lines that sound like they should be uttered by a retired detective being pulled back onto the job, she brings a genuineness to them you have to admire.

Insidious: The Last Key opens in theaters January 5th.