While Joel Silver's Dark Castle label is aiming to close a distribution deal for Vincenzo Natali's recent film, Splice, Relativity Media has tapped the director to helm the family adventure flick, Tunnels, with hopes the title will become the first installment in a potential franchise according to Variety.

Natali is trading Splice's alluring but deadly human-chimera for a sinister civilization of tunnel dwellers named after the underworld's most famous river, Styx. Tunnels revolves around 14-year-old Will Burrows who shares a love for the subterranean with his eccentric, archaeologist father. When dad mysteriously disappears, Will starts digging into the mystery. He discovers a secret society trapped in time known as The Colony, who are ruled by the cult-like group, The Styx.

First-time authors, Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams, wrote the New York Times best-selling children's series of the same name, was originally optioned by Relativity back in 2007. Two other books in the series, Deeper (published in 2008) and Freefall (to be published this Spring) are giving producers hope they can franchise the tale in a fashion similar to Tunnels' publisher Chicken House/Scholastic Inc.'s success story, Harry Potter.

The project is being produced by Ryan Kavanaugh, Mark Canton, Danny Davids and Neil Canton--most of who have a few horror titles under their belt. Simon Sandquist and Joel Bergvall penned the screenplay. Alex Etel (Millions, The Water Horse) is rumored to star.

Given Natali's penchant for secret labyrinth worlds (remember Cube?) and dystopian sci-fi twists, he seems like the perfect fit for what almost feels like a steampunk/Journey to the Center of the Earth adventure--at least the way the book is described. Reviews depict the story as tonally dark with a bleak atmosphere. Can this series generate interest from the Harry Potter crowd after the two-parter finishes in 2011, or is there not enough light in the tunnel to lure you back for another visit?