"The Hidden," the new film starring Kyle MacLachlan, may be the most laid-back movie about alien invaders ever made. It's set in L.A., and it seems to have soaked up something more than local color. Its virtues are ones that you almost never encounter in movies of this sort; it's really a unique little item -- if there's such a thing as punk soulfulness, then this movie has it.

This doesn't mean the movie doesn't cook. There are a couple of aliens, and the bad one is particularly obstreperous. The creature is a parasite, and I don't mean that figuratively. (It looks like something you might find rooting around in the trash out behind a Lobster Shack.) To get around -- and it likes to get around -- it has to enter the body of a living being, and in this regard it's not too picky. It does have very selective tastes, however, and they run toward rock music, loud, and Ferraris, red if possible. (He's sort of a "Miami Vice" alien.)

It also seems to take a certain amount of delight in killing people, and at the beginning of the movie it motors around L.A., speakers blaring, doing precisely that. The police try to stop it, but they have no idea what they're up against until an FBI agent named Gallagher (MacLachlan) is teamed up with an L.A. detective named Beck (Michael Nouri) to haul the killer in.

It's Gallagher who informs Beck that the killer isn't exactly as he seems -- and he should know, because neither is he. At first Beck doesn't buy it, but when the alien leaves one host and enters a stripper (Claudia Christian), who goes on a rampage wearing a tiger-lame' mini-duster and red thigh-high boots, he's convinced.

"The Hidden" is one of the most satisfying genre movies to hit the streets in a while. It isn't major -- it's too unassuming, too laconic for that. But it's consistently imaginative. Directed by Jack Sholder ("Nightmare on Elm Street 2"), the movie is sophisticated without being slick. Basically it's a cop movie, but one with an acute sense of B-movie play. Working from Bob Hunt's hilariously improbable script, Sholder has built lackadaisical rhythms into the film, and he lets the story take the shape that seems most natural to it. As a result, nothing about the movie, which has its own special brand of deadpan funkiness, ever feels stale or forced.

A lot of the movie's charms are directly attributable to MacLachlan's sly, minimalistic performance. He does some astoundingly droll underplaying here. There's a marvelous scene around a dinner table in which he conveys, almost imperceptibly, that an ordinary, everyday fork is a totally radical concept. And after he's taken only a few sips of beer you can tell that something profoundly upsetting is happening to him. He could be an alien or, perhaps, just wiped out on tricyclics.

So far, MacLachlan's career ("Dune," "Blue Velvet" and now this) has had a deeply weird bent. But he's developed into a very poised performer. There's a touch of the poetic in his character, which, along with his stone-faced implacability, brings Buster Keaton to mind.

"The Hidden" isn't as assertive as Michael Laughlin's "Strange Behavior" or its companion film "Strange Invaders," but it has in common with those movies the same hip insouciance. And there's a little of "Repo's Man's" wiggy unpredictability, thrown in, too. This is a rare kind of pulp; it's boisterously destructive, funny and, at the same time, almost serene.

The Hidden, at area theaters, is rated R and contains some violence, rough language and scenes of nudity.