'Altered Minds': Was the horror real, or imagined?

Family secrets can be dangerous at the best of times: Repressed trauma doesn't die when it's buried. And like the vengeful ghost of Hamlet's father, it always finds its way back to haunt the living.

All the more so if the family in question is headed by a scientist conducting mind-control experiments for the CIA.

That's the premise of TV writer-producer Michael Z. Wechsler's feature premiere, Altered Minds, a powerful, effective - if admittedly fanciful and contrived - psychological thriller starring Judd Hirsch as the gentle patriarch of a Philadelphia family who is confronted about his dark past by his grown children.

Hirsch, 80, best known for his beloved turn as the avuncular Alex Rieger in the sitcom Taxi, delivers a restrained, memorable performance as Nathaniel Shellner, a psychiatrist who worked for the military in the 1950s before joining the Peace Corps. He became renowned in the 1970s and 1980s for treating war orphans around the world who were affected by PTSD.

From his work also came three adopted children: Harry (C.S. Lee), a concert violinist born in Southeast Asia, and siblings Julie (Jaime Ray Newman) and Tommy (Ryan O'Nan), whom Nathan rescued from a Russian orphanage.

Long retired, Nathan and his wife, Lillian (Caroline Lagerfelt), have gathered together their children, including their biological son, Leonard (Joseph Lyle Taylor), at their beautiful suburban home for a last reunion before his impending death from lung cancer.

The tranquil weekend is rudely interrupted when Tommy, a horror novelist with a fertile, morbid imagination, accuses Nathan of having experimented on him as a child.

Tommy, who has been in therapy for years, is clearly nuts. He spends most of the day trying to dig up the family dog, which has been dead 20 years. He claims to have recovered memories of his father and colleagues' implanting electrodes in his brain when he was 8.

There's something, Tommy insists - a grave, a secret lab, a chest full of secret papers - underneath the garden. Julie then begins remembering a damp underground cell beneath the house, an armed soldier, the smell of rubbing alcohol.

What's going on here? Has she been infected by Tommy's mind-rot, as Leonard insists? Or did something awful actually happen in that house?

A small, intimate micro-budget effort, Altered Minds boasts terrific production values, pitch-perfect performances, and an eerie soundscape of found noises that evoke the feel of a surreal nightmare.

While it sometimes comes off like a staged play, it's an impressive debut from a director in full control of the material.

tirdad@phillynews.com

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Altered Minds *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Michael Z. Wechsler. With Judd Hirsch, Ryan O'Nan, C.S. Lee, Jaime Ray Newman, Caroline Lagerfelt. Distributed by Gravitas Ventures.

Running time: 1 hour, 46 mins.

Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (disturbing images, profanity, violence).

Playing at: AMC Loews Cherry Hill 24.