US director Michael Wechsler has a burning desire to find his family dog.

For anyone who has ever gone through the trauma of losing a pet, it’s understandable.

Considering the four-legged friend in question is deceased makes it slightly more unusual.

But this strange yearning provided the catalyst for the writer-director’s dark psychological thriller, The Red Robin.

For it’s his protagonist Tommy’s (played by Ryan O’Nan) hell-bent obsession to discover the whereabouts of his dead dog’s ashes that exposes a family beset by secrets.

Wechsler said, “I had a dog that I grew up with – I had him since I was two – and when we put him down, he was an old man, we cremated him and put him in an urn. I had the urn throughout high school but when I went on to college I left it behind.

“I found out many years later after my parents moved from my childhood home that they had buried the urn in the garden. There was always this fascination, I always wanted to go back and ask the people that bought the house if they could give me a few hours to find my dog.

“It was a deep-seeded urge and I wanted to bring that in to my main character. It gave him a reason for coming into the house and causing chaos.” The Red Robin was an eight-year odyssey for the filmmaker, who put pen to paper in 2005 and finally shot the movie in Villanova City, Pennsylvania, in December 2011. He became a father-of-two during those years and describes the film as his ‘third child’.

The film is not your usual dysfunctional family drama. It may use the snowy landscapes of winter as a metaphor but Ang Lee’s Ice Storm it isn’t. Where that film looked at the breakdown of a family unit through drink, drugs and sex, Wechsler’s second feature’s deep-seeded roots lie in something altogether more sinister – mind control experimentation.

Set in a New Jersey suburb, Nobel Prize-winning psychiatrist Dr Nathaniel Shellner (Judd Hirsch) is dying of cancer and his children have gathered to celebrate what may be his last birthday. When his adopted son, Tommy, a successful horror novelist, arrives he makes wild accusations that his father experimented on him and his adopted siblings, like Nazi physician, Mengele. At first his claims are dismissed as fantasy, brought on through grief, but as the night draws in and the temperature drops, suspicion mounts that their father might not be the loving family man he claims to be.

“I’ve always enjoyed stories about families that have issues,” Wechsler said. “Traumatised individuals and post-traumatic stress disorder have been a fascination and always seem to make their way into scripts I write. In 2005 when I went hunting for this idea all I knew is that I wanted to do a story about a family that was coming to terms with secrets, that may or may not have been haunting them. I wanted there to be a character that was suffering from trauma who didn’t realise it and through the course of the story had to unscramble his messed-up psychological DNA.” With that in mind he searched the net for inspiration and found it on YouTube through a series of real-life confessions by victims of the CIA’s former mind-control project, MK Ultra. This was, in Wechsler’s words, the “smoking gun” he needed. And it was through further research that he discovered many of the experiments were carried out on adopted children.

He said, “A lot of the time three or five year olds were donated by their families, on behalf of patriotism, and a lot of them were adopted kids.

“You can programme someone who has been traumatised much more easily than someone whose wiring is in place, and that’s why they took orphans from war. All of that filtered into who Nathaniel Shellner was.

“Here’s a man who not only was doing good by going to orphanages around the world and counselling the most wretched and poor souls, but he was also bringing some back. Then, when we start questioning who he really is, and maybe listening to what Tommy is saying, it allows you to see the perverse nature of what he may have been doing. Was he doing it for love or experimentation?” The Red Robin had its UK premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival 2014.