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Film / Pump Up the Volume

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"Feeling screwed up at a screwed up time in a screwed up place does not necessarily make you screwed up."
Mark Hunter

A 1990 movie written and directed by Allan Moyle and starring Christian Slater, Pump Up the Volume features the exploits of Mark Hunter, a recent transfer to Hubert Humphrey High in Arizona, where he spends his days as a moping teenager and spends his nights running a pirate radio station under the moniker Happy Harry Hard-on.

While entertaining the locals, his show becomes more political as he takes on the local school over injustices done toward the local student body. He goes from an underground favorite to a controversial figure overnight, however, when one of his call-in guests claims to be contemplating suicide... and then actually does it after hanging up on Harry.

The film underperformed at the box office, but has become a cult favorite since its release. In the long term, it's perhaps most notable for featuring the debut of Samantha Mathis and its soundtrack, as well as an early performance by Seth Green.

This film contains examples of:

  • Actually Pretty Funny: A police detective who tracks down the P.O. box that Mark is using for his fan mail is rather amused by his choice of pseudonym.
    Postal Clerk: That box is registered to a Mr. Charles U. Farley, 112 Crescent.
    Reporter: But that's the address of the school!
    Detective: Heh, Chuck U. Farley!
  • Audience Monologue: Several throughout the film. The audience in this case is Harry's listeners, as well as the viewer.
  • Big Bad: Principal Crestwood, leading the Dean Bitterman pack.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Mark is arrested for his illegal broadcasting, but not only had he managed to improve his school's situation greatly (and gotten Crestwood fired), but he has also encouraged other teens nation-wide to speak up... which they do by setting up their own pirate stations.
  • Brick Joke: "Is it bigger than a baby's arm?"
  • Buccaneer Broadcaster: Mark as "Harry". Just to hammer it in, the F.C.C. is called in on the final act.
  • Burn Baby Burn: Mark burns the mail he's gotten as "Harry" in a brief moment when he struggles with quitting for good.
  • Can't Stop The Signal: The very last scene is Mark being arrested by the police... and a number of teenage Buccaneer Broadcasters starting to broadcast (encouraged by Mark/Harry and his "speak up!" last speech) throughout America as the film fades to black.
  • Catchphrase: Several, as Harry is very quotable. "So be it." "Take cover, Arizona!" "I'm done, stick a fork in me." "Turn on the truth!" "Talk hard," and so on.
  • Censorship Bureau: The F.C.C. form up a Stern Chase posse during the final act. The Principal tries her hardest to be this, but it becomes increasingly notable to the ones looking that she is just escalating her fascist methods and stopping to bother with covering them up.
  • Clark Kenting: Mark needs glasses and seemingly can't speak above a mutter, which initially convinces Nora that he can't be Harry. Subverted at first in that this really is Mark's personality, and "Harry" is an act he is putting on (Nora's first clue is the books he returns to the school library, which are a recipe for a character like Harry), but later he seems to have come out of his shell and truly become more (though not completely) like Harry.
  • Chekhov's Gun : We see Nora's red letter in the very first shot of the film, and it's later the way she identifies him. Also, Mark finds the letter from Deaver in his dad's office several scenes before he reads it on the air.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: We're introduced to some students on the bus in the very first scene, whose names come up much later as Mark's platform to rail against the injustices at the school. Luis Chavez and Cheryl Biggs are called in to see the principal, and we see a shot of the (unnamed) Malcolm.
  • Coming of Age Story: By the end of the movie, Mark decides not to disguise his voice anymore and is finally able to talk publicly when he gets caught, overcoming his fear.
  • Cool Teacher: Jan Emerson. A young teacher, her classes are conducted in a relaxed and casual manner, and she seems to have a friendly and supportive relationship with her students (seemingly an exception to the rule at HHH). She is genuinely entertained by Hard Harry's broadcasts, and is even fired for standing up for a former student being physically assaulted by another member of the faculty.
  • Darkest Hour: From when Mark learns of Malcolm Kaiser's suicide through to when he decides to go back on the air.
  • Dean Bitterman: Principal Crestwood, of the two-faced and thoroughly illegal methods variety. If she feels for any reason a student will ruin her school's GPA or SAT average record, she will find some way to get them kicked out, even if that means passive-aggressive bullying of the establishment or just looking the other way while they are harassed.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Most of the teen cast, but Mark/Harry especially. "Are you going to write a letter to your friends back East?" "No, I thought I'd send away for an inflatable date."
  • The Dragon: Mr. Murdock, to Principal Crestwood
  • Driven to Suicide: Malcolm.
    • Subverted with Harry himself.
    Now I'm depressed. Now I feel like killing myself. Luckily, I'm too depressed to bother.
  • Ear Worm: Harry's Voice Clip Song at the beginning of his final broadcast: "Happy Birthday dad, I'm in JAIL!!" We see a couple of students dancing to it as the climax starts.
  • Eating Lunch Alone: Used as a way to highlight Mark's isolation in his school. Also a plot point, as it allows Nora to identify him, in the stairwell.
  • Fanservice: Nora and Mark taking off their shirts in a scene late in the movie.
  • Fun with Acronyms: BIONIC (Believe It Or Not, I Care)
    • Also in universe, it's Hubert Humphrey High, and Happy Harry Hardon. This explains why the students gather in front of their school entrance, where the building reads H.H.H., to listen to him.
  • The Grunting Orgasm: Parodied by the main character.
    Take cover, Arizona!
  • Hippie Teacher: Averted with the guidance counsellor. Played straight with Miss Emerson. Zig-Zagged with Brian, Mark's dad, who was this until he became an administrator.
    Brian: I still love my job...and power and money.
  • Immoral Journalist: Shep Sheppard at first appears to be an Intrepid Reporter, but later reveals that he cares more about his ratings than the truth of his reportage
  • Jerk Jock : The story about the jocks by the lake.
  • Large Ham Radio: "Harry". Every broadcast scene up until the very last one is just Mark unleashing his inner (very foul-mouthed) Large Ham.
  • Made Myself Sad: Mark, but luckily, he was too depressed to kill himself.
  • Memetic Mutation: In-universe, the students at Humphrey hang posters and spray-paint Harry's catch-phrases everywhere.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Mark is a talented writer, and his English teacher is trying to get him to write for the school paper.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: A tragic example in the "advice" Harry gives to Malcolm.
  • No Dead Body Poops: Averted after the call-in guest kills himself, Harry talks about suicide during the following broadcast, citing being found after the inverse of this trope kicks in as one of the reasons suicide is bad.
    "Girls you never spoke to are going Why Why Why?... And you've got a load in your shorts!"
  • Open-Minded Parent: Mark's parents are such stereotypical baby boomers that it's vaguely ridiculous, but they're absolutely delighted at the idea that Mark has been sneaking Nora into the house under their noses. Of course, at the time they find out, they A. think Mark's the pirate DJ they're hearing about on the news, so it beats the alternative, and B. have been pushing him to try and have more of a social life at his new school - a cute girlfriend is a major step in that direction. It could also be interpreted that they had been worried about Mark being gay, although this isn't stated.
  • Playful Hacker: Happy Harry is a pirate radio equivalent.
  • Product Placement : Diet Pepsi. Wild Cherry Diet Pepsi is even mentioned in some of the dialogue, though Black Jack gum might just be something Mark likes.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Mark's Dad and English teacher play it straight, Principal Crestwood and Mr Murdock are notable aversions.
  • Reluctant Hero: Mark is very hesitant when he sees how big his Happy Harry personality is getting and it isn't until late in the film that he embraces it.
  • Shirtless Scene: Involving both Christian Slater and Samantha Mathis.
  • Slimeball: Deaver the guidance counselor is a creep who takes orders from Crestwood to validate the expulsion of "undesirable" students while pretending to care about them. Crestwood herself is a whole lot worse (not only creating this policy (and enforcing it through flat-out illegal means) in order to get better grades and thus up the school's funding, but she calls the expelled students "losers" when confronted about this).
    • Deaver might get a bit of a Heel–Face Turn at the end, when Brian Hunter confronts Ms. Crestwood about her illegal and unethical activities. It seems that his decision to expel Cheryl might have been intended to help her, and he didn't know how far Crestwood had gone in her actions - or maybe he just knows the scheme is about to be exposed, and he's trying to make himself look better.
    Cresswood: They were losers.
    Deaver: They're just kids!
  • Smoking Is Cool: Slater smoked so many cigarettes while making the movie, mostly while filming Mark's rants, that he made himself physically ill. Quite a few characters smoke in the film, Mark's mother, Nora, her best friend...
  • Smug Snake: All of the antagonist adult authority figures on this film are full of themselves, but Crestwood takes the cake with her unapologetic determination to cull out anybody she deems a "loser" from her school and passive-aggressiveness.
  • Spoonerism: Charles "Chuck" U. Farley
  • Spiritual Antithesis: This is sort of an informal bookend with Heathers, in regard to Christian Slater's films and the subject of teenage suicide.
    We're all worried, we're all in pain. That just comes with having eyes and having ears. But just remember one thing - it can't get any worse, it can only get better. High school is the bottom, being a teenager sucks, but that's the point, surviving it is the whole point. Quitting is not going to make you stronger, living will. So just hang on and hang in there.
  • Stalker without a Crush: Nora's interest in Mark, at first, is an attempt to solve the mystery of Harry's identity. She more or less stops stalking him when she finds out who he is.