If you think The Alien was frightening in the movie of that name, you should see its ancestor. Vicious seafood is scary enough, but how would you like to be stuck in outer space with a mischievous, clawed beachball?

This marvelously silly concept is in "Dark Star," a film that Dan O'Bannon wrote, designed and starred in five years before he wrote his horror hit, "Alien."

His shamelessness in later using the same ludicrous material straight -- and with such spectacular success -- is mitigated by this documentation that the author found the idea of a space blob that jumps out at people and all but screams "Boo!" hilarious.

"Dark Star" was never fully released on the East Coast in 1974 because of various business complications. Appearing now, it's a funny antidote not only to "Alien," but to "Star Wars," "Star Trek" and "The Black Hole," among other humorless and nearly identical "fantasies" about outer space.

This one is the story of a small crew of Americans who, having been in space for 20 years, have long ago used up their mental resources. The chief topic of conversation is whether each night's thin, tinfoil-wrapped liquid dinner is chicken again; on a good night they can get up an argument about how many years ago it was that one man first bored the others with the story of how he was taken aboard by being mistaken for a real astronaut.

The mission is to destroy unstable planets, but mission control has since lost interest in it and ceased appropriations. The crew, however, persists. "Don't give me any of that 'intelligent life' stuff," complains the captain when alerted that there is a 95 per cent chance of such activity being nearby.

"Give me something I can blow up." It seems that the last intelligent life they spotted turned out to be "a vegetable that squawked when you kicked it."

Instructions come from a computer with the insipid voice of a stewardess, heralding each of their dangerous pratfalls with the announcement, "Thank you for observing all safety precautions."

There is equipment on board for recording each man's private memoirs. "I'm tired of being treated like an old washrag" is a typical entry.

And then there is The Alien, a red balloon with yellow spots and vulture claws, taken aboard as a pet but showing itself to be a grand nuisance. Not only does it keep playing hide-and-seek in the bowels of the ship, but it leaves droppings all over the place.

In this incarnation, however, The Alien has no malice in its nature. Worse -- it's childishly playful. When a crew member hangs precariously in the shaft of an oncoming elevator, the Alien can't resist tickling him. "And to think when I brought you on the ship, I though you were cute," mumbles the unfortunate man who has to do Alien duty with broom and dustpan.