The rare contemporary screen ghost story favoring a slow build and minimal violence over blunt scare tactics, “Phasma Ex Machina” reps an impressive feature debut for writer-director Matt Osterman. Lacking the stars, sensationalism, production scale or “Paranormal Activity”-level scariness to court theatrical exposure, it will win fans in home formats while giving primary collaborators a career leg up.

Their parents’ car-accident demise leaves barely adult Cody (Sasha Andreev) and chubby younger brother, James (Max Hauser), in a fragile state, which James expresses by messing up at school. Meanwhile, Cody invests all his time (and the insurance payoff they live on) constructing an electromagnetic energy-field machine of fanciful purpose. It succeeds at what he intends — bringing the dead back to life, but not always the ones intended. While the siblings face hostile returnees from the other side, middle-aged widower Tom (a strong Matthew Feeney) is flummoxed by his beloved dead wife’s reappearance, just as he’s begun a new relationship. Reminiscent of “The Sixth Sense” in its subtle creepiness, and indie “Primer” in its tech-geek angle, pic isn’t a knockout but demonstrates professional skill and psychological acuity.

Phasma Ex Machina

  • Production: A Hodag Films production. Produced by Jennifer Kramer. Executive producers, Sigrid Tornquist, Christine Zonneveld, Bob Griffin, Mick Spence. Co-producer, Jon Maichel Thomas. Directed, written, edited by Matt Osterman.
  • Crew: Camera (color, HD), Adam Honzl; music, Wojciech Golczewski, Steven Kramer; production designer, Xris Frank; set decorator, Thomas Brighton. Reviewed on DVD, San Francisco, July 1, 2010. (In Fantasia, Another Hole in the Head film festivals.) Running time: 86 MIN.
  • With: With: Sasha Andreev, Matthew Feeney, Max Hauser, Emily Fradenburgh, Ellen Karsten, Katrina Hawley, Laurie King, Ted Hall, Corey Walton, Bill Gorman, Carol Vnuk.